La Leche League (LLL) Shares Some Thoughts on the Age-Old Practice of Wet/Cross Nursing

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The recent Channel 4 programme "Other People's Breast Milk" highlighted the practice of wet/cross nursing. Read the history of wet and cross nursing and La Leche League's views on the sharing of breastmilk today.

Wet nursing: breastfeeding another woman's child
Cross nursing: two mothers sharing the breastfeeding of their children

The history of wet and cross nursing is very interesting. It has been controversial since the beginning of recorded history and has regularly gone in and out of fashion. 2000 years BC, laws written for the Babylonian Empire included rules for wet nursing. In years gone by, if a woman died in childbirth the only practical solution to save her baby was for another lactating female (often her sister) to breastfeed the child.

Did you know?

  •     In the 16th to 18th century well-to-do mothers in Europe and North America rarely nursed their babies. Fashions of the time required corsets to be worn, which often damaged breast tissue and nipples. Employing a wet nurse was a sign of high social status.
  •     In 17th century England noblemen wanted as many heirs as possible. As breastfeeding can delay the return of fertility, they did not want their wives to breastfeed.
  •     In 18th century France, Parisian women believed breastfeeding would ruin their figures and make them old.
  •     In the mid 19th century doctors began to realise that there was a risk that some diseases could be passed through breast milk when a woman wasn't nursing her own baby. They began to seek artificial substitutes. Unfortunately, the lack of understanding of the composition and living nature of breastmilk led to many babies dying because the substitutes were far more harmful to a baby's health than wet nursing.
  •     In many countries today wet/cross nursing is common practice with different cultures and religions having strong beliefs and customs surrounding it.

Some important points about wet/cross nursing
When LLL receives enquiries about wet/cross nursing we mention various important points which a mother should take into consideration.

  •     The woman who will be breastfeeding her baby should have medical checks for various infectious agents.
  •     She should not drink alcohol, or consume large amounts of caffeinated or artificially sweetened beverages.
  •     When cross nursing, her own baby should be close in age to the baby to be nursed, healthy, gaining weight and free from infection.
  •     Babies develop close bonds with the wet nurse and the adoptive/birth mother should be prepared for this.

Cross nursing may be done on a more casual basis between friends or sisters, but again the health implications need to be considered. No-one can be sure what undetected viruses we might have. With wet nursing the breastmilk may adapt to the baby's needs. But cross nursing will not provide the baby with milk that has all the nutrients, vitamins and minerals in the right proportions, and could disrupt milk production of both the cross nurser and the natural mother. Psychologically some babies can also be upset by another woman's voice or smell, and may be confused by a different let-down and flow rate.

LLL has available a large range of leaflets which offer information and support for a range of situations concerning establishing breastfeeding. Some of these are:-

Hand Expression of Breastmilk
Storing Your Milk
Choosing A Breast Pump
Importance of Breastfeeding

Adventures in Tandem Nursing £10.99
Breastfeeding an Adopted Baby & Relactation £9.99

Relactation and Adoptive Breastfeeding £3.99

These are all available from the LLLGB Shop

Once a mother knows all this it will be up to her to decide what to do. It makes sense for a human baby to have human milk rather than formula made from cow's (or other types of) milk and in a crisis situation cross nursing may be the best solution. However the best possible choice for mother and baby is for the baby to be breastfed by his own mother.

Anna Burbidge, spokesperson for La Leche League said "LLL would like to see the emphasis more on support and information for new mothers who want to breastfeed their own babies, and discussions about the normality of breastfeeding, rather than the current focus on something which will only be of benefit to a small number of people. However we always aim to offer women accurate information which will help them make choices which feel right to them, and to support them in breastfeeding."

La Leche League GB
Registered Charity Number 283771


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Wendy Goodwin
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