Wet Nurse

So what’s the deal with this?

When I first came across this term (years ago) I guessed what it meant but it seemed so unbelievable that I didn’t trust my guess. But, according to Webster, it is “one that cares for and suckles young not her own”.

Now I think breastfeeding is wonderful, and my wife has, on rare occasions, while simultaneously lactating and babysitting, given a friend’s baby a snack. But I get the impression that wet nursing was a more or less professional arrangement in bygone days, and that the nurse was of a lower social class, a servant. Which leads to two questions:

  1. What kind of parents would do this? I can see the servants tucking the kid into bed at night or changing a diaper but this seems a little extreme. I would have major questions about hygiene, for starters, and what about the nurse’s diet? A lot of foods go right into the breast milk. What if the nurse (being poor) subsists on rutabagas or something? Is that what you’d want for your “little precious”? Recycled peasant food?

  2. What kind of person would take this job? For starters she would have to have children of her own – would she take on her employer’s child in addition? Would she wean her child to take on the newcomer? How would you get into this field?

Is there anyone with a relevant knowledge of culture and history that can give me some insight?

Does this still go on?

p.s. How would you conduct the job interview? (“Candidate #1! Strip to the waist, please. Well! You seem to be qualified!! Let’s have a taste! … Have you been eating pickles?”)


“non sunt multiplicanda entia praeter necessitatem”
– William of Ockham

pluto asks:

Well (and this relates to part of this question later on), the heyday of this practice was a while ago. (I don’t claim that there have been no wet nurses in the 20th century CE, only that, whatever their numbers might have been, they’re a smaller percentage of the population of the population than they were five hundred years ago.) So, a lot of the notions of nutrition, hygiene, etc., that we have today wouldn’t have applied to the child’s birth mother, let alone the wet nurse.
As for what may be called the accidental consequences: the wet nurse would have been part of the household, not called up from the village six times a day. So, she would have whatever benefits the gentry family, or at least their upper servants, in question might have had in the way of better food, clothing, etc.

Yes, she nust must have had a child of her own in the recent past – which does not mean that it would not have been stillborn, or died of some vile disease at six days, six weeks, or six years of age. The attitude that a live birth necessarily means living to age seventy is, I fear, a notion and, indeed, an expectation, fostered by our present culture, which has some idea of sanitation and medicine. The idea in past ages was too likely to be: “It died. Too bad.”
I suggest reading Romeo and Juliet. The Nurse is evidently a wet nurse, and had a daughter who died young.
Of course, many women have had twins or even triplets, and managed to breastfeed them. That being the case, adding one additional child, even if a child is already being nursed, is unlikely to strain the average woman’s biology.
As for how a woman gets into the field – doubtless the local squire said, “Ludmilla seems a strapping wench. I’ll give her sixpence a day and all the table scraps she can eat in exchange for being wet nursing my boy.”

“Kings die, and leave their crowns to their sons. Shmuel HaKatan took all the treasures in the world, and went away.”

Wet nurses have a long history. It was rare for a woman of the upper class to nurse her own children.

There were a bunch of reasons for the practice. Part was that the mother didn’t have to bother. In addition, nursing was considered bad for the breasts (from an esthetic point of view) and women and men wanted to avoid that. The church also forbade sex while the mother was nursing, so there was an added incentive.

You didn’t just pick someone off the street for the job. It was believed that the baby would take on the characteristics of the nurse; if the wet nurse was, say, a thief, the child would grow up to be one, too. Wet nurses were carefully vetted for good moral characters and large breasted women were preferred because the presumably had more to give (one reason why large breasts were not considered sexy until relatively recently – they were thought of as maternal, not erotic).

Wet nurses continued up until the invention of baby formula.


Regarding the question of delegating what we would consider an intimate parent-child thing to a servant:

In past times it seems, the higher you were in the social echelon, the less you were expected to do any sort of personal work or chores at all; and this included raising your children. The British still believe in children attending boarding schools for the majority of the year. In the southern United States, virtually every upper-class person was nursed by a “mammy” (double meaning there?).

My mother sarcasticly refers to the southern aristocratic ideal as the “queen bee” system: spawn as many infants as possible, turn them over to nurses and tutors, and never see them again untill they’re adults.

(graphic deleted - possible copyright violation. Nickrz)

[Note: This message has been edited by Nickrz]

I believe that “Midshipman Easy” by Marryat opens with an account of the selection of a wet nurse. It’s a fictional account, but gives some idea of how and why it happened.

Actually, that’s not a 20th Century innovation. Nursing women in previous centuries were often advised to do the same for a variety of pseudomedical reasons.

But granted, wetnursing a pig in order to sell CD’s is pretty much a 20th century invention.

My mother told me once about how a few years before I was born, sometime in the late 50s, she had a still born baby. While she was recovering in the hospital, one of the staff asked her if she would nurse an abandoned newborn. She said it helped her emotionally deal with losing a full term baby.


Nanobyte you pig! I mean, you wish…


In the sequel to “Pamela” (1740-something), the heroine wishes to nurse her own baby, but her husband prohibits it on the grounds that it might make her unattractive, and he wouldn’t love her any more, and it would be her fault.

In the Arthurian Vulgate, Sir Kay’s traditional boorish behavior is explained by the fact that he, displaced by Arthur, had to use a peasant wet nurse. His father guilt-trips the young king on that point to make Arthur promise always to put up with Kay’s 'tude.

John W. Kennedy
“Compact is becoming contract; man only earns and pays.”
– Charles Williams

You all describe the wet nurse in terms of a rich woman who didn’t want to bother. Another reason to hire a wet nurse would be a mother who did want to nurse her child, but was unable to for whatever reason. Maybe she didn’t produce enough herself, or some other reason. Until baby formula was invented, a wet nurse was the only solution.

I appreciate all the input. Food for thought, so to speak. Could have done without the photo, though! Is that really from a CD?

I guess I can see the upper class aversion to nursing, though how a group as screwed up as they are ever got to be the “upper” class, I’ll never know! And I understand that many more children died in infancy than do now. It just struck me as unlikely that there would routinely be an available candidate every time there was a job opening.

I suppose the twins comment is the answer I was looking for. The nurse wouldn’t have to be a recently bereaved mother, just a nursing mother. She would take on the additional “customer” and her body would crank up production to meet demand. (Right?) As an aside, how long can a woman go without nursing and still be able to start again? Weeks? Months?

I hadn’t heard that about the child taking on the characteristics of the nurse. Seems like a good wet nurse would be one in a million. I wonder what would have happened if they had formed a union?

Finally, in spite of my squeamishness on this topic, I think the ending of The Grapes of Wrath is one of the most powerful images in literature. Hooray for the ladies! I’m just glad I’m not one!

“non sunt multiplicanda entia praeter necessitatem”
– William of Ockham

If you believe current breastfeeding information (propaganda?), in the past children were breastfed far longer than they are in Western societies today. La Leche League claims the current world average is 4 years (not exclusively, of course). So women with young children would basically be lactating all the time and finding a wet-nurse wouldn’t be all that hard to do.

A wet nurse does not have to be a woman that is lactating because she has a baby. Lactation can be induced in many women by placing a suckling baby at their breast for some period of time daily for several days. I have read about the amount of time and days required but don’t remember what that is.
Before the invention of bottles with nipples, wet nursing was about the the only way for a baby to survive if the mother was unable to nurse it. After weaving was invented, rolls of cloth soaked in milk were used but that’s not very efficient and probably didn’t work very well.

Call me a breat-obsessed leech [pause while you do that], but can grown men induce lactation? Seriously, when my wife was nursing, my children obviously got enough to drink (the little butterballs!), but when we’d have sex I’d do a little suckling myself, with not much success. I’ve always wondered if (a) my technique, er, sucked; or (b)if my wife was simply “dry” from her last nursing.

Call me a breast-obsessed leech [pause while you do that], but can grown men induce lactation?

Can’t speak from personal experience, but I have read that it’s possible. I believe it takes a lot more time and effort than if a baby performs the suckling.

And the ultimate cause of an innability to nurse would be death. Until very recently childbirth was a damned dangerous business and many women didn’t survive it. Often, of course, the baby was lost along with the mama, but not always. And, with no commercial baby formulas available, an otherwise healthy baby was at risk of malnutrition, food poisoning and/or starvation. To name just one high profile case: Jane Seymour, third wife of Henry VIII of England, died a few days after her son, the future Edward VI, was born. The baby didn’t tolerate the breast milk substitutes that were in use at that time and would probably have died had it not been for his wet nurse.

There were surely manny, manny other lower-profile examples. I have read (although I can’t remember where, or even if it was in a novel or reference book) of a case in 19th century America, where a woman died, leaving an orphaned baby, and her mother (the child’s grandmother), who had a toddler of her own, took the baby to her own homestead a few miles away and took care of him (including nursing him) until he was old enough to be returned to his family and safely raised by his father and older sisters. My guess is this kind of thing was common enough to be unremarkable.


Full of 'satiable curtiosity

Our pediatrician had an interesting story about a Middle Eastern family in her care. The new mom was having trouble building up enough milk to nurse and she was suggesting all the common US techniques (frequent nursing, pumping, etc.) Her husband was very traditional and after none of these measures was working very well, he decided to ship her back to Saudi Arabia. Apparently, back home she would be sequestered with relatives who also had nursing babies. One of them would take her newborn and she would be given a big, strapping six-month-old or some such, who would provide the stimulation she needed to get going. The old fashioned method.

In addition to the several excellent comments here, I’d like to add this: when infant mortality rates were high (and they were HIGH- in the middle ages, if you had 6 kids, you’d be lucky if one survived childhood) parents made some effort to avoid emotional attachment with their kids. Chances were, the kid was gonna die. It was best not to get too involved.

Wealthier families not only hired wet nurses, they sent their kids away for the first several years of their lives. When the kid turned 7 or so (and the danger of death had lessened) girls could come home; boys were more likely to be sent off to begin an apprenticeship in some trade or another.

Life is different now.