What is a wet nurse?
A wet nurse is a woman who breast-feeds somebody else’s baby, either for money or because she is enslaved. From the Stone Age up until the invention of modern infant formula in the mid-1900s, many babies got their milk from a wet nurse – a woman who was not their own mother. Wet nurses had milk because they had had babies of their own.
How did wet nurses have milk to spare?
Sometimes they had milk to spare because their own babies had grown big enough to eat regular food. Other times, their babies had died, or been killed. But many wet nurses nursed their own babies right alongside the baby they were hired to nurse – just as women nurse two babies when they have twins.
Why not use formula or cow’s milk?
In the ancient world people did not have baby formula to put in bottles. But cow’s milk and goat milk do not have all the vitamins and minerals in them that babies need to be healthy.
And in those days, cow’s milk and goat milk were only available in the spring and summer anyway. Cows and goats only gave milk for a few months after they had their babies. They didn’t give milk all year round. Besides, without refrigeration or pasteurization cow’s milk often had germs in it. That could kill babies or make them sick. Many babies died of dysentery (a very dangerous kind of diarrhea), so parents tried really hard to keep their babies from getting it.
Why did mothers hire a wet nurse?
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. But not everybody could feed their own baby, and not all women wanted to.
Some women just didn’t make enough milk, or their nipples might be the wrong shape for breast-feeding. Many women probably got pregnant again before their baby was old enough to wean. They might decide to hire or buy a wet nurse rather than trying to nurse two babies.
In other cases, the mother might have died in child-birth, so she was not available to nurse the baby. That seems to be the case in the contract pictured here, which is between the baby’s father and the wet nurse. Or the baby might be adopted. In the story of Moses, for example, Pharaoh’s daughter hires a wet nurse to feed him, not realizing that the wet nurse is his own mother.
Rich women and breast-feeding
Other women hired wet nurses to nurse their babies because they were too busy to nurse. Nursing is very time-consuming, and many women had other claims on their time. 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. Among the famous people who had wet nurses, there’s the Pharaoh Tutankhamen, King Louis XIV of France, and the English writer Jane Austen.
Generally with rich people, the wet nurses lived with the household, and often stayed on as servants their whole lives. Thus Odysseus‘ wet nurse, the enslaved woman Eurykleia, is still in his house as an old woman when he gets back from Troy.
A sad story from Roman Egypt
Two documents from related court cases in Roman Egypt show how complicated and sad wet nursing could be. Court records on papyrus show that Pesouris and his son Theon found an abandoned baby, and decided to bring it up as their slave.
They gave the baby, Heraclas, to Sareus to nurse, and paid her to take care of him. Soon there were signs of trouble. Pesouris and Theon claim that Sareus was starving little Heraclas. They took Heraclas with them, but (according to them), Sareus took him back again.
Then things got worse. Sareus told Pesouris and Theon that Heraclas had died. They came to her house and tried to take the baby they found there, but Sareus said that was her own baby, Apion, not Heraclas. So Pesouris and Theon sued Sareus for the baby. The judge decided the baby did look like Sareus, and she could keep him, if she refunded Theon’s money.
A little later on, Sareus’ husband sued Pesouris and Theon. In his lawsuit, he says that Theon and Pesouris still haven’t given Apion back to them, and asks the judge to enforce the ruling. Plus, he complains, Theon and Pesouris have been harassing him at work.
Why did poor people hire wet nurses?
Poor women also often had wet nurses, so that they could go back to work in the fields or as servants or textile workers. But poor people couldn’t pay their wet nurses very well. And the wet nurses didn’t live with the family: they generally ran “baby-farms” out in the country, while the mothers worked in the city. A lot of poor people’s wet nurses tried to nurse too many babies at once, and most of the poor babies died. In France, for example, the philosopher Rousseau lost five children this way.
And just before the French Revolution, most of the women in Paris sent their babies to wet nurses in the country, and most of those babies died there. Even as late as World War I, many French women had to send their babies to wet nurses so they could work.
Wet nursing today
The invention of acceptable infant formula in the 1940s meant the end of wet nursing for most people, though both rich and poor women still often end up putting their children into day care so they can work. Recently, however, more parents have been interested in hiring wet nurses, because breast milk is still better for babies than formula is.
Bibliography and further reading about the history of wet nurses:
Wet Nursing: A History from Antiquity to the Present, by Valerie Fildes (1988, currently out of print).