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What is a Wet Nurse?

Mary McMahon
Updated Feb 24, 2024
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A wet nurse is a woman who nurses another woman's child, usually for a fee. There are a number of reasons to use a wet nurse, and wet nursing has a long history in most of the world. Although the practice is not as widespread in industrialized nations as it once was, wet nursing is still practiced in many developing countries. A variation, cross-nursing, involves using a wet nurse part time and nursing your own child the rest of the time.

One of the most common reasons for hiring a wet nurse is that the mother herself cannot breast feed. Some mothers are ill, or become exposed to toxins and drugs which may harm the infant. Other mothers simply do not produce milk, or in some cases an infant has a negative reaction to its mother's milk. In these cases, a wet nurse is hired to provide nutrition for the infant, and in some instances the wet nurse acts as a nanny as well.. If a mother dies, the survivors may choose to hire a wet nurse who also acts as a nanny.

Another reason for hiring a wet nurse is unwillingness to breast feed. Some women feel that breast feeding is unattractive, although they would like their babies to get the benefit of breast milk. Historically, upper class women were often unwilling to breast feed because they wanted to increase their chances of getting pregnant again as soon as possible after the birth. On the other end of the spectrum, some lower class women were unwilling to breastfeed because they did not want to miss time at work.

Many mothers believe that breastfeeding is healthy for a baby, since milk is naturally formulated to provide nutrition to a growing infant. Breast feeding also establishes a connection between infant and mother, which some organizations such as La Leche League believe is put at risk by the use of a wet nurse. The variation of cross-nursing strikes a balance between breast feeding your own child and using a wet nurse, and some mothers argue that it helps to build community, since cross-nursing is often performed by neighbors or mothers caring for each other's children.

In most developed countries, wet nursing has been largely replaced by milk banks and infant formula. At the end of the twentieth century, a small segment of wealthier women took up the practice again so that they could continue advancing their careers while also having children. In developing countries, wet nursing plays an important role in some societies, especially in countries with high maternal fatality due to infections like AIDS.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon75300 — On Apr 06, 2010

I'm trying to find info on how to become a wet nurse. What are the first steps and who I should contact in my area. I have a 15 month old son who I am slowly weaning, however I'm passionate about breastfeeding and am more than willing to continue lactating if there is a demand for it.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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