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Sharing The Bounty: Wet-Nursing & Cross-Nursing In The Public Eye

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by Mary Jessica Hammes
February 16, 2009

Perhaps you’ve seen the ABC Nightline video that features actress Salma Hayek breastfeeding a starving baby who is not her own in Sierra Leone?

If you’re a big sap like me, you might have teared up a bit, watching a tiny, hungry human find visible relief in the impromptu meal.

Hayek was there to promote the tetanus vaccine in a place where 21 percent of infant deaths are related to that disease.She told ABC News that her great-grandmother had once breastfed a stranger’s baby and saved the child’s life.

That’s right—while there might be a certain novelty to watching a beautiful celebrity casually breastfeed another’s child on television, cross-nursing (nursing other people’s infants) or wet-nursing (another term for doing the same thing, but generally for pay) is nothing new.

A cross-nursing comeback
According to La Leche League (LLL), one of the oldest written laws from the Babylonian Empire had regulations for wet nursing; in the Bible, Moses’ mother managed to get herself hired as her own baby’s wet nurse. From the 16th to 18th centuries, fashionable mothers gave their children to wet nurses, taking them back when they were weaned.

By the mid-19th century, wet nurses, believed to be spreading syphilis, were replaced by human milk bank businesses and artificial milk. But it looks like there might be a small resurgence in the practice of wet- and cross-nursing, driven either by necessity or wealthy convenience.

When melamine-tainted formula in China made more than 50,000 babies ill, wet nurses—generally impoverished women who were hired to nurse the babies of desperate and more affluent families—became a hot trend, according to the Wall Street Journal. (Sadly, as that article states, the nursing mothers found work feeding other babies at the expense of their own; sometimes, wet nurses there are not allowed to bring their own children to work. One woman interviewed for the article suggested that, should she be hired, her 2-month-old baby would get “rice water.”)

Both cross- and wet-nursing appears to be making a “minor comeback” even in the U.S., said a 2007 Time Magazine article. That article notes a cultural distinction: wealthy Americans who hire wet nurses (due to adoption, high-impact careers or breast implants or reductions) keep quiet about it “for fear of being judged,” while those who cross-nurse tend to focus on the community aspect, talking about “female friendship” and “building a village.”

In the United Kingdom, nursing other people’s babies continues to happen quietly, reported a 2007 Guardian article. In an essay published around the same time, writer and feminist activist Jennifer Baumgardner chronicled her own experience with cross-nursing—from her initial, humorous skittishness to the impulsive moment when she and her friend do, in fact, trade babies for a moment.

But is it safe?
Here’s the official word from the Human Milk Banking Association of North America: “The practice of casual sharing of milk or procuring milk from any source other than an established donor human milk bank operating under HMBANA Guidelines, or similar guidelines established in other countries, has potential risks for both the recipient and the donor or her child. HMBANA does not endorse the practice of selling or purchasing human milk, human milk components or human milk by-products.”

Hmm. Well, what about LLL? They have a similar statement. The organization “does not encourage or suggest wet nursing or cross nursing of infants.” In fact, “the practice is discouraged for a number of physical and psychological reasons”—such as spreading infection, reducing milk supply for the nursing woman’s own child, not having the specific composition of milk needed if there is an age difference in the children, and confusing or frustrating the infant.

Another problem, says LLL: cross-nursing may disrupt the maternal-infant bond, which makes one wonder whether LLL would apply these rules in emergency situations. LLL does offer guidelines for screening a cross-nursing woman, and it’s what you’d expect: you want a healthy, well-nourished, unmedicated woman who has been screened for major infections (like tuberculosis and HIV) and whose own infant is healthy.

The World Health Organization appears to have a more relaxed view on cross-nursing, at least in emergencies. After tsunamis devastated South Asian communities in 2004, the WHO released a statement on emergency child-feeding. “In exceptionally difficult circumstances, therefore, the focus needs to be on creating conditions that will facilitate breastfeeding, such as establishing safe corners for mothers and infants, or helping mothers relactate,” it reads. “Every effort should be made to identify ways to breastfeed infants and young children who are separated from their mothers, for example by a wet-nurse (if culturally acceptable).”

In general situations, the WHO recommends that “pasteurized, screened, donor breast milk from an accredited human milk bank” be the third choice of infant feeding (after feeding at the breast and expressed breast milk, respectively).

If you follow the official advice of LLL and the WHO, you might be willing to employ cross-nursing in extreme situations, but refrain on an average day.

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