Saturday, November 03, 2007


Apologies to those people who check in to my blog each week. I’ve not really fallen off the edge of the Earth, despite those rumours! It’s been a hectic month or so, for various reasons, and will become apparent in my blogs over the next few weeks.

(Wet Nursing is the nursing of another woman’s baby for money. Cross Nursing involves the one-off or occasional breastfeeding of someone else’s baby while you continue to nurse her own child.)

When I was pregnant with my daughters, I had a pact with my lactating friends that if I couldn’t breastfeed for any reason, they’d breastfeed my babies. We were Milk Systers, and our vow was solid. Obviously I would do the same for their babies. I am one of *those* women who’d happily share my breast milk with another woman’s baby ~ friend or stranger. Like any aspect of breastfeeding, whether it’s breastfeeding itself, full-term breastfeeding, tandem nursing, breastfeeding in public ~ how you feel about it will depend on your frame of reference.

I have shared milk with other women’s children (with their permission) and although it is initially strange having a child who’s not your own, in your arms and connected so intimately, once the old oxytocin (love hormone) kicks in, you simply know that you could breastfeed the World’s Children. Yes, love is that big. Breast milk is liquid love and true love knows no bounds.

Some people are absolutely horrified at the thought of feeding someone else’s child, yet have no qualms about their baby sucking from a cow’s udder ~ even if the experienced is camouflaged and one step removed by being mixed with other ingredients, freeze dried and then re-hydrated into a bottle.

There’s no question that the breastfeeding relationship between a mother and her child is sacred, even holy, ground. And as an advocate of breastfeeding at the breast, rather than a mother’s own expressed milk in a bottle, it might seem odd that I’d be in support of wet nursing or shared feeding (known as cross nursing [horrible expression]). Here are my reasons:

I’m not in support of expressed milk as life-style choice because breast milk is designed to be consumed as it is made. It is age and (developmental) stage specific to the mother’s child and was never meant to see the light of day.

Breastfeeding is a complete package that involves so many aspects of the child’s being ~ physical, emotional, mental and spiritual. My preference would be for a child to be nursed at another woman’s breast (as a temporary measure, or permanently if her own mother is dead or extremely ill) than to consume ‘old’ (even hours old) milk from a bottle.

Breast milk is a *living* food and should be treated with the respect it deserves.

My main thoughts about wet-nursing/cross nursing are:

1.) It should be a gift of love, and not something measured by money, unless the lactating woman is doing it long-term as a career.

2.) I believe mothers should support each other when new babies come along, and be willing to share their milk so that asking the baby to drink from a bottle (expressed milk or formula) is not necessary. (Please note that a mother’s expressed milk is always the first choice of supplement, but where possible offer it off a finger, pipette or spoon, rather than a bottle. Allowing the baby to nurse from another mum enables the sucking reflex to develop)

A child will not breastfeed if it doesn’t want to! You can’t force a baby to breastfeed, so the concerns from some quarters of LLL that it might cause psychological harm, I believe, are unfounded.

If you want to look further into cross nursing, the Association of Breastfeeding Mothers takes a more liberal view than LLL.

I have heard someone in LLL say that if a mother cross nurses another child, it may reduce her own milk supply. This flies in the face of what I learnt during my breastfeeding counsellor training (ironically with LLL) AND from my own experience and that of other mothers world-wide. Milk is made on demand. If you’ve got two (or more) children feeding at the breast, then your body will make more milk to suit the need, not less! A woman can easily provide breast milk for about five children at any one time if she wanted to.

To be clear, though, once a baby gets to a certain age, say 4 – 6 months, it may not want to breastfeed from another woman, either because her voice is different, or her let-down is unlike what she’s been used to. As with any aspect of breastfeeding, let your baby be the guide.

The ideal person to breastfeed your child in a cross nursing situation, is a mother with a baby the same, or very similar age, who is healthy, drug free, and in a good mental and emotional state. She should not consume caffeine, alcohol, smoke, or have large amounts of sweetener. Ironically, some milk banks allow lactating mothers to have up to 7 cups of coffee a day. Seven cups? I’d have a heart attack if I had seven cups of coffee in one day. Just one cup of coffee (or a mouthful of chocolate), and I can’t sleep for about 30 hours! I do not understand this about milk banks. Why would it be acceptable for babies to have breast milk loaded with caffeine? It’s insane.

My experience of women who cross nurse is that they are more than happy with having had their baby fed by another woman, and themselves having breastfed another child. Clearly this cuts against our cultural bias of it being an ‘adulterous relationship’.

Babies must receive breast milk. When our culture finally wakes up enough to realise the significance of this, personally and collectively, then all squeamishness about wet nursing/cross nursing/full term breastfeeding etc., will fly out the window. And not before time!

Cross nursing can be used in emergencies, or to help stimulate a mother’s milk supply if her baby hasn’t been latched-on enough (eg. baby has Down’s Syndrome or is premature). Women who choose to breastfeed an adopted baby, can stimulate their milk supply by nursing an experienced breastfeeding baby.

It’s nothing short of child abuse, in my opinion, to give newborn babies anything less than breast milk, and ideally from the breast. But hey, it’ll take a while before our society wakes up to this. If ever in doubt about what a baby needs to drink, remember, HUMAN MILK FOR HUMAN BABIES.

One of the reasons people are so uncomfortable with the idea of wet nursing, is because of the use of intimate body parts (not so intimate when splashed on the covers of lad magz) and exchanging of body fluids. Funny, though, how one night stands don’t come into the same category.

I believe another difficulty we may have with cross nursing in Western culture, stems from the idea of ownership. We simply don’t know how to share. We’ve been raised to believe in my, my, my or mine, mine, mine. It’s a strong, bold and beautiful woman who transcends this patriarchal line and offers her breast up to another child, and indeed, trusts another woman to nurture her child.

Milk Banks

Milk banks have their place, but I’d rather see women sharing their milk directly from the breast to child. The process involved in making donated breast milk available to babies in NICU or elsewhere, defeats the purpose of providing the benefits of breast milk (to my mind). However, I’d certainly recommend donated milk from this source over formula. Beware though of a particular company marketing donated breast milk for babies in NICU at extortionate prices.

Each country with milk banks, have their own guidelines for donor mums. In some countries, if you’ve had a blood transfusion, are vegetarian/vegan, drink herb teas, etc., you are unlikely to be allowed to donate. Some countries have a blood transfusion deadline of about 20 years ago, some countries one year ago. There’s certainly no universal consensus on this.

Many women happily consume raspberry leaf tea or fennel tea while they’re lactating. Excluding these women from milk donation is ludicrous, and a joke given it’s ok to have seven cups of coffee a day! Excluding women like me, who abstain from flesh, is ludicrous. Our children have thrived on our fennel-laced breast milk.

My main reservation with milk banking is that the milk is pasteurised and pooled (with other mother’s milks). Any *living* food is rendered inadequate by heat treatment. Some places, like Norway, are experimenting with offering ‘raw’ breast milk for babies in need. This is a much more enlightened approach.

For many centuries in Britain, it was common for wet nurses to feed babies. Sadly the reasons used including protecting a mother’s figure (!!) or allowing wealthier women to be emotionally removed from their children. Wet nursing went out of fashion when doctors believed some infections might have been transmitted through breast milk…and lo and behold, crap in a can was invented for women who *didn’t want* to breastfeed.
I believe it is highly unlikely that a woman who is passionate about breast milk, would knowingly breastfeed another woman’s child if she had a transmittable/infectious disease.

The media has recently latched-on (no pun intended!) the idea of wet-nursing, no doubt to ignite people’s interest in something unusual, however recorded history shows wet nursing occurring as far back as 2000 BC in the Code of Hammurabi. A wet nurse was hired for Moses and written about in 1250BC (Old Testament’s Book of Exodus). Turned out that the wet nurse was actually his mother, but the employer didn’t know that!

In 600 AD, The Koran suggested wet nursing.

It’s always been controversial, and like many things, comes in and out of fashion. It was in the middle of the 19th Century that physicians sought out a substitute for breast milk. And the rest is history. Separating babies from their food source has been our undoing. Women were fooled into believing that artificial feeding was to be respected.

Ideally, a child will receive breast milk from her mother’s breast. But we don’t live in an ideal world and so we must be open to wet nursing and cross nursing.

One of my favourite cross nursing stories (although very sad) involved the mother of a three month old baby who was injured in a car crash.

The mother was unconscious, and clearly unable to breastfeed. Fortunately, the ‘aware’ father, although he was also injured, knew that the mother would not want the child to have formula, so he asked for donations of breast milk. When one of the women turned up at the hospital to express her milk, she thought it seemed a bit ridiculous to express it into a bottle, and so, with the father’s permission, breastfed the baby. For the duration that the mother was unable to breastfeed, five women took turns breastfeeding the baby. To me this is a beautiful story of sisterhood. The tragedy is that this understanding, this support and love, is so rare in our society.

Another story which warms my heart is of Judith Waterford ~ a wet nurse. On her 81st birthday (back in the 1800s) she was still producing milk for babies. During the prime of her wet nursing years, she managed to produce four pints a day.

If you have a personal experience of wet nursing/cross nursing, either breastfeeding someone else’s child, or your child having been breastfed by another mum, and might be open to taking part in a SENSITIVE documentary on the subject, please get in touch with me. If you get in touch, there is no commitment to be involved. (UK women only, please).


erzsebel said...

I don't, unfortunately, have experience of wet nursing. My closest baby-buddy friend is expecting in six weeks; our first babies were due on the same day, 16 months ago. I emphatically do not want another child, but I would *love* another go at nursing a newborn, and if my buddy needs a hand (or a boob), I'll be right there. I'm aware that I'm motivated by my own wish to somehow make right the mess I made of my son's early BF experience, but alongside that, I do heartily agree that cross-nursing is far more sensible than milk banking. Handling and processing breastmilk destroys most of the immunological properties, crucial for those babies in special care, who need them most. If the milk were delivered direct, it would be so much more beneficial.

Harmonious Living said...

"To me this is a beautiful story of sisterhood. The tragedy is that this understanding, this support and love, is so rare in our society"

Yes, I hear systers share disgust at nursing another child! but at the same time they will make love with some junk food eating drongo, whose semen is made up of the junk he eats. The womon becomes nothing more than a spitoon for his toxic waste.

As you know I was a 60's mum, not a breast in sight!
There isnt even a question in my heart around the efficasy of everything you shared in this article.
We need to re-establish the sacred clans of systerhood.
Brill books. are Wisdoms daughters and the 13 Clan mothers.
Brilliant to have you back.

flutterby said...

in 1996 a friend and i promised we'd share should we ever need to (or feed the others child long term should anything serious happen) luckily we never needed to (luckily because it meant we both stayed fine and healthy in spite of all that life through at us both. recently i shared but only for the purposes of drops on an eye infection - and this with a total non-believer..... she was desperate and willing to try anything!

mighty acorns said...

ollslighty off track but I, last year, when my son was around a month old, donated breast milk for prem twins (mother was a homebirth midwife). in NZ it is very rare to be able to donate milk, there are no banks (although the wonderful registrar at my hospital here is trying to get one going - a committed BFer of her 6 year oldow !). the milk was expressed by me at home and delivered some 30 km to the hospital each day for the babies. There were two of us doing this and it was just so cool to be able to help. I recently offered the same to my s-i-l who has just had a baby and was having some initial b/fing challenges...she was aghast. how different we all are. My son is now 22 months and beginning to wean himself. there are moments I feel quite bereft!

Petra said...

i too havent had any experience as such with wetnursing although i have donated my breastmilk to my neighbours whos son was born prematurely. i strongly believe in the immunological benefits of breastmilk and i have, on occasion, given expressed milk to my partners daughter, my stepdaughter when she came to visit. she is now 3 1/2 and those few times she had my breastmilk (secretly as her mother would be horrified - but then she is at the thought of bf herself too!) were the only times she has had breastmilk as her mother didnt bother trying. she has been ill countless times, has taken countless rounds of antibiotics and creams and tablets for thrush, her teeth are rotting away already and unfortunately she is in every other way a "perfect" example of bottle feeding gone wrong!!
im sorry, ive veered off topic a bit but i just wanted to add that my neighbour is having a bay in july and that i have given her "the politics of bf" and "a womanly art of bf" to read. once she has read these i will suggest to her that should the need ever arise i will happily wetnurse for her.