The Lifesaving, Horrifying History of Wet Nurses

There’s a new surge in the sale of breast milk, predominantly to Neonatal Intensive Care Units (NICUs), where it can be crucial for the survival of premature infants. However, some critics express concern about the potential unintended consequences of commodifying human milk.

Historically, the practice of selling human milk has long been a contentious issue. As Jacqueline H. Wolf discusses in a 1999 paper for the Journal of Social History, breast milk has been both essential and morally problematic for centuries.

Before the advent of modern infant formula, breast milk was vital for infant health. At a New York institution established in 1865, infants suffered from diarrhea and malnutrition until the directors ceased using artificial food and employed wet nurses.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, wet nurses were typically hired by affluent families rather than institutions. In 1913, a physician surveyed colleagues nationwide about assisting families in finding wet nurses. Of the 80 respondents, 72 had helped, most frequently with the hiring of six or more wet nurses annually.

Families hiring wet nurses often distrusted the impoverished women who took the job. Even doctors, who acknowledged the life-saving role of wet nurses, often viewed them with disdain. One doctor remarked, “The class of society from which wet nurses are drawn is very low, increasing the likelihood of disease; besides, they are generally difficult to manage.”

Many mothers refused to allow a wet nurse’s baby to live in their home, forcing these women to leave their own infants with caretakers who provided the same inadequate artificial food their employers sought to avoid. A New York agency that hired out wet nurses often placed their infants “out to board,” resulting in a 90% mortality rate among these babies.

One mother, Fanny B. Workman, wrote to Babyhood magazine about her experience hiring a “decidedly unattractive” wet nurse who, contrary to instructions, brought her own infant to the job interview. The wet nurse eventually placed her baby with another caretaker to accept the job. Two weeks later, she received a telegram informing her that her baby had died. Workman described persuading the woman to remain at work instead of attending her baby’s funeral, but noted that the wet nurse became “very unruly and obstinate” and consumed food unsuitable for Workman’s baby. Ultimately, Workman dismissed her.

Other mothers responded to Workman’s letter with their own difficulties in finding a wet nurse of “even average mental or moral qualifications,” highlighting the challenges and ethical issues surrounding the practice.

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