Would you ever let someone else nurse your baby? If you live in the United States, chances are you might bristle at the idea of your child getting someone else’s breast milk, particularly straight from the source. But the truth is, it’s not as uncommon as you might think. And this week on Sister Wives, it was revealed that one of the wives, Meri, wet nursed for Janelle’s daughter Maddie when Janelle was struggling to produce enough milk.
Whenever a story of one parent nursing another’s child goes viral, the comments are full of people saying that it’s gross, or that they would never let someone else nurse their baby. And that, of course, is entirely their choice. But the notion that it is somehow “gross” or “weird,” is one that we may want to reconsider. For some families, wet nursing is one of the only ways to ensure their child gets the benefits of breast milk and so it’s a choice they make.
And that choice is one that families didn’t have before the invention of formula. Until then, if a mother was struggling to produce enough milk for her child, the only option was to have another woman nurse her baby if the baby was to survive. Of course, wet nursing has a complicated history in the United States, particularly for black women, which is why it is impossible to disentangle from our history of slavery. It’s important to acknowledge that context and history when we discuss the idea of wet nursing in a cultural, U.S.-specific context.
But around the world, wet nursing continues to be a common cultural practice. The adage that “it takes a village to raise a child” includes breastfeeding in many cases. And for parents who may not be able to make enough milk for their child but still want them to get the benefits of breast milk and a nursing relationship, having someone else provide that sustenance and comfort can be a wonderful option. In his book Where’s The Mother?: Stories From A Transgender Dad, author Trevor MacDonald talks about the wonderful role receiving milk from the breast of a friend played in the first few months of his baby’s life, since MacDonald was only able to produce about a quarter of the milk his son needed.
In order to make up the difference, MacDonald also sought donor milk through peer-to-peer donation. This is a common practice where parents who produce too much milk for just their own child pump and store their excess milk and donate it to families where the parent may not be producing enough for whatever reason. This is yet another way that babies receive breast milk that does not come from their gestational parent’s body. In fact, premature babies in the NICU often receive donor milk from a milk bank. So, while some families make the totally valid decision to supplement with formula in these cases, not all do, and seeking donor milk is also a valid option for families to choose.
What all of these scenarios have in common is that they show that there are a myriad of ways that babies receive breast milk that don’t come from their parent’s breast. And the more stories we hear about it, whether it’s on a reality show or in books like MacDonald’s, the more we normalize the practice. At the end of the day, any baby that receives breast milk in whatever form and from whatever source, is receiving a gift, and we should encourage people to do what works for their family.