Breastfeeding or Nursing with Wet Nurses in the Eighteenth Century

Visit to the Wet Nurse by Belgian painter Basile de Loose. Public domain.

Breastfeeding or nursing with wet nurses in the eighteenth century was a common occurrence. That was because by medieval times the idea of breastfeeding was often regarded as too menial a task for royal women and they began to use wet nurses. Other reasons for the use of wet nurses was that mothers sometimes were unable to produce enough milk, died during child birth, or suffered some physical ailment. There were also some women who claimed breastfeeding was time consuming or they argued that it ruined their figures. Sometimes a woman’s husband might not support her breastfeeding activities, or sometimes a woman wanted to quickly get pregnant again and thought it would happen faster if she didn’t nurse.

Noble women and the gentry soon adopted the idea of using wet nurses, which then made the job of nursing primarily a job for the lower classes. Another reason the occupation of wet nursing was popular with the lower classes was that wet nurses were held in high esteem, and this respect increased their social status. The pay was often good too. In addition, because wet nurses helped care for and raise the infants they nursed, the job was viewed as being extremely vital and necessary.

Wet nurses for royalty were important enough in the 1700s that when they were appointed, it was publicly announced. For example, in 1774, when a Mrs. Hopkins, wife of the Reverend Mr. Hopkins, was appointed as the royal wet nurse, The London Magazine reported on it and noted that she was ordered to be in “readiness” upon her majesty’s “first notice.” To further demonstrate the importance of royal wet nurses, this brief paragraph appeared in 1840 and was titled “Nursing Royalty”:

“To be a wet nurse to the blood royal of England nearly amounts to a sinecure, since the office to be filled cannot, per se, be of long duration. Thus we find, in the records of the day, that the pensions of the wet-nurses to the several branches of the royal family, including the birth of the last child, amount to 1,600l. per annum; every nurse to the young children having an annuity for life of 100l. a year, and those of the Prince of Wales and the princess royal 400l. per year.”[1]

An infant who has been living with a wet-nurse being taken away from its foster-parents by its natural mother. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, because wet nursing was considered a highly desirable job, wet nurses were common in England. Many of them were mothers themselves and because of the high demand for their services, they often earned more money than common laborers did. In addition, the infants they breastfed often lived with them and remained there until they reached the age of three, although infants sometimes died depending how poor the living conditions were for the wet nurse.

Wet nurses were as popular in France in the 1700s as they were in England. For instance, in 1780 in Paris, of the 21,000 babies born that year, only 1,000 were nursed by their own mothers, but unlike British wet nurses, Parisian wet nurses received low wages and paid high rents.[2] This forced many lower-class Parisian mothers to leave their own children and work as wet nurses, which meant they sent their own babies away to be cared for by wet nurses poorer than themselves. Because of this, one twentieth-century nurse who wrote a book about breastfeeding maintained, “In effect, wealthy parents frequent ‘bought’ the life of their infant for the life of another.”[3]

When selecting and hiring a wet nurse, ideas developed in the eighteenth century about what made the perfect wet nurse. These traits or characteristics that prospective clients might want in their nurses were then published in various books and included:

  • Possessing a sober, virtuous, and respectable character.
  • Maintaining good health and being free from hereditary complaints.
  • Living close enough that the mother could see her child often, so as to ensure that her wet nurse was not negligent in her duties.
  • Being between the ages of twenty and forty.
  • Possessing a pleasing countenance and have no disagreeable features that might cause a child to squint.
  • Avoiding spirituous liquors because such drinks were considered improper and could endanger a baby. However, table beer, ale, or porter were all said to be proper drinks for a wet nurse.
  • Eating a diet of plain, simple, and light foods free from seasonings, pepper, and salt. Also, the diet was to consist of fruits, vegetables, and broth, with only a little meat.
  • Having good nipples to ensure a nursing child could suckle with ease.
  • Producing plenty of milk so that a baby could easily suckle from both breasts.
  • Ensuring the breast milk was to be not too creamy, too thick, or too watery.
  • Possessing a mild temper and good disposition along with having no strong passions, as they were thought to affect the production of milk or a wet nurse’s ability to care properly for her charge.
  • Being a mother to at least one child as it was thought she would be more likely to have a greater flow of milk for a longer and more consistent period.
  • Guaranteeing the wet nurse did not clandestinely suckle her own child during the same period she nursed a charge.
  • Living in the country versus the city because country wet nurses were thought to be healthier than city wet nurses.
  • Nursing immediately after her lying-in period because it was believed she would produce better milk and greater quantities of it.

Throughout the eighteenth century there were numerous advertisements by people looking for reliable wet nurses. These ads often requested that the nurse be a healthy, young woman with a good temperament. Advertisements also frequently requested nurturing wet nurses or those with plenty of milk. One advertisement for a wet nurse that appeared in 1798 stated:

“WET NURSE WANTED immediately in that capacity, a young healthful person of good character, with a fresh breast of milk. If from the country the more desirable. For particulars apply to Mr. Ledger, Albion Library, Dover.”[4]

“Visite Chez la Nourrice (Visit to the Wetnurse)” by Victor Adam. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

It wasn’t just clients looking for wet nurses because wet nurses also ran advertisements hoping to find employment. Their advertisements often echoed the type of wet nurses asked for by clients. One example of a wet nurse searching for employment was printed in a Dublin paper in 1778:

“Any Lady wanting a Wet Nurse, an Englishwoman, young, healthy, and well-tempered, with a plentiful Flow of wholesome Milk, and a remarkably fine Child, four Months old, now at her Breast, may be accommodated much to her Satisfaction, by applying at No. 20, Dame-Street. * * * Good Wages, and advantageous Terms will be expected.”[5]

Another wet nurse seeking employment in Britain ran the following advertisement in 1783:

“[A] healthy young Woman, who is gentle quiet, and well tempered; has been brought to Bed of her second Child about eleven Weeks since. She will be recommended for her Tenderness and Care, also for her Husband, for his Sobriety and Regularity, by some reputable Person in this City. She may be heard of by directing a Line for E.B. at the Printer’s hereof, and will wait on any Lady who wants her immediately.”[6]

Despite royalty and upper classes shying away from breastfeeding, by the late 1700s, many doctors and experts supported the idea that mothers were the best people to breastfeed their own children. Support for nursing mothers also occurred because discoveries were being made that demonstrated the mother and the child could receive impressive health benefits from nursing. One twentieth century historian noted of this trend:

“By the late eighteenth century, putting the baby to its mother’s breast at birth was perceived as entirely beneficial. Theologians, followed by physicians, initiated criticism of wet nursing, a time-honored practice among the gentry. Mothers were to be persuaded to breast-feed their babies themselves not only by suggestion but also by evidence from the newly emergency lying-in hospitals that this would be beneficial to their health as well as to that of their babies.”[7]

The Reverend William Wilson was a proponent of mother’s feeding their own infants and stated that newborns “ought to be put to the breast as soon as possible; this is generally salutary both to mother and child.”[8] An author in 1781 who was also a supporter of mother’s breastfeeding stated, “it cannot be doubted that breast-milk is the most natural as well as proper food for a child.”[9] Another enthusiast of breastfeeding by mothers claimed in 1792 that “good nursing is a point which has either been too much neglected, or mistaken; nevertheless it is of the first consequence towards the cure of diseases, and the preserving of delicate and feeble constitutions.”[10]

Chart showing the mortality rate of infants between 1762 and 1771. Public domain.

One physician who wrote a book on nursing and child care in 1792 provided information related to infant deaths between 1762 and 1771 in Britain. He also included the chart to the right in demonstration of his position that mothers should breastfeed. He noted that “good nursing” was important to prevent disease and death in babies. In addition, he pointed out.

“We see that almost two-thirds of the children born in this metropolis and its environs are entirely lost to society: 16283 are, upon the average, the annual births; 10145, the infant burials; and, what deserves particular attention, 7987 are cut off before they are two years old … [and] it may be prevented.”[11]

Even though theologians and doctors argued against wet nurses, mother still wanted to hire them. However, it was not always easy to find a good wet nurse, which then resulted in the use of dry nursing or the supplementation of flour or cereals for babies. In fact, “by the late eighteenth century artificial feeding, rather than wet nursing, had become the socially acceptable alternative to maternal breastfeeding in aristocratic and wealthy families.”[12]. A description of this follows:

 “[I]n large towns, the difficulty that attends getting good wet nurses, and the danger attending bad ones, induce many to prefer bringing up a child with the spoon which is commonly called dry nursing, to the risque of getting a bad nurse. When a child is healthy and strong, this latter mode, of dry nursing may be adopted with the most propriety, and a prospect of success; but when a child is sickly, weak, or cross-tempered, it will generally be found a perplexing, difficult piece of business.”[13]

Despite the belief that dry nursing was acceptable, critics began to point out that supplementation or dry nursing was not necessarily a good solution because “foods used for mixed feeding actually declined in nutritive value … principally due to a reduction in the use of eggs, milk, and meat broth.[14] One eighteenth-century doctor noted that breastfeeding was best, dry nursing was not a good practice, and inappropriate foods were too often given to babies:

“Above three fourths of these little innocents fall a sacrifice under two years old. … Could we but conquer the prejudices of the times, and abolish unnatural and absurd practices … occasioned by improper food; such as all kinds of pap, whether made from flour bread, or biscuit … To prevent all these unhappy consequences, let us but for a moment reflect that every mother is designed by Nature to foster her own child.”[15]

Pleas for mothers to breastfeed, do away with dry nursing, and stop using wet nurses continued into the 1800s. One early nineteenth-century journal maintained that “it is manifestly the design of nature, that the infant should draw its food from the mother’s breasts; it is [also] reasonable to presume that this design cannot be contravened, without subjecting both mother and infant to an increased liability to injurious consequences.”[16] By the Victorian Era, child rearing experts and medical journalists became more vocal. They also began to appeal to women’s emotions by publicizing the evils of wet nursing without having any facts to back them up. These appeals, along with popularization against wet nurses by theologians and doctors, introduction of the feeding bottle, and creation of the world’s first commercial infant formula, caused Victorian mothers to slowly abandon the practice of hiring and using wet nurses.

References:

  • [1] The Cabinet of Curiosities, Or Wonders of the World Displayed: Forming a Repository of Whatever is Remarkable in the Regions of Nature and Art, Extraordinary Events, and Eccentric Biography. With Forty-three Illustrations (New York: Piercy & Reed, 1840), p. 156.
  • [2] Emmanuelle ROMANET, “La mise en nourrice, une pratique répandue en France au XIXe siècle,” Transtext(e)s Transcultures 跨文本跨文化. Journal of Global Cultural Studies, no. 8 (2013)
  • [3] Valerie A. Fildes, Breasts, Bottles, and Babies: A History of Infant Feeding (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1986), p. 193.
  • [4] Kentish Gazette, “Wet Nurse,” September 14, 1798, p. 1.
  • [5]Dublin Evening Post, “ A Wet Nurse,” October 13, 1778, p. 1.
  • [6] Saunders’s News-Letter, “Good Wet Nurse,” July 21, 1783, p. 3.
  • [7] Elizabeth Lomax, “Reviewed Work: Breasts, Bottles and Babies: A History of Infant Feeding by Valerie A. Fildes,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 62, no. 1 (Spring 1988): p. 121.
  • [8] W. Wilson, The Philosophy of Physic: Or, The Natural History of Diseases, and Their Cure, Being an Attempt to Deliver the Art of Healing from the Darkness of Barbarism and Superstition, and from the Jargon and Pedantry of the Schools. Shewing a More Easy and Certain Way of Preserving and Recovering Health, Than Any Hitherto Known (London: Reverend William Wilson, 1805), p. 242.
  • [9] William Moss, An Essay on the Management and Nursing of Children in the Earlier Periods of Infancy and on the Treatment and Rule of Conduct Requisite for the Mother During Pregnancy, and in Lying-in (London: J. Johnson, 1781), p. 56.
  • [10] H. Smith, Letters to Married Women, on Nursing and the Management of Children. The Sixth Edition, Revised, and Considerably Enlarged. By the Late Hugh Smith, M.D (London: C. and G. Kearsley, 1792), p. iv.
  • [11] Ibid., p. v–vi.
  • [12] E. Lomax, p. 121.
  • [13] W. Moss, p. 56.
  • [14] E. Lomax, p. 121.
  • [15] H. Smith, p. vi–viii.
  • [16] A. Dr. Curtius, The Botanico-Medical Recorder v. 8 (Columbus, Ohio: Dr. A. Curtius, 1810), p. 200.

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