What is a wet nurse? - History of Wet Nursing
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What is a Wet Nurse?

Wet-nurse
(From the tomb of one of the
daughters of Akhenaten)

A wet nurse is a woman who breast-feeds somebody else's baby, either for money or because she is a slave.

In the ancient world they did not have baby formula to put in bottles, so it was much healthier for babies to be breast-fed, even if it was not their own mother's milk, than it was for them to have plain cow's milk (which was only available in the spring and summer anyway). Besides, without refrigeration or pasturization cow's milk often had germs in it which could kill babies or make them sick.

It was very common throughout Europe and Asia for rich women to have wet-nurses for their babies, so they would be free to run businesses or to rule countries.

Poor women also often had wet-nurses, so that they could go back to work in the fields or as house servants. But poor people couldn't pay their wet nurses very well, and often their babies died.

More about Egyptian slaves

Bibliography and further reading about wet nurses:

Wet Nursing: A History from Antiquity to the Present, by Valerie Fildes (1988, currently out of print).

Infants, Parents and Wet Nurses: Medieval Islamic Views on Breastfeeding and Their Social Implications, by Avner Giladi (1999).

More about Egyptian slaves
More about women in ancient Rome
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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