I have thought for some time about how formula fed babies will fare in a SHTF scenario. What if formula has already been looted from the store or destroyed by fire or a major natural disaster? In a time of chaos and collapse, infants are already vulnerable, and especially so without a reliable source of nutrition.
Maybe it’s time we rethink an old custom, wet nursing, or breast feeding another’s child.
Yep, I went there.
This age-old practice may be the best way for a new generation to survive in a worst case scenario.
In the “olden” days (until the late 1800’s), wealthy families often employed a wet nurse, or lactating mother, to nurse their children in place of themselves. In high society, they left the child raising to others. The child went from the wet nurse to the nanny, the tutor, and then on to boarding school.
Sometimes (many times), women of all social classes died during childbirth or shortly thereafter, leaving a hungry baby who needed to be fed. A lactating family member would step up and take the infant to her own breast. If family wasn’t an option, someone else would step in to be the wet nurse.
Wet Nursing in Modern Times
I saw a friend of mine do this about 20 years ago. I will call her “Jane”, as in Jane Doe. Needless to say, at that time I was shocked to see her nursing a child that wasn’t her own! Jane was on maternity leave and she was helping out a colleague who recently went back to work part time. The colleague’s baby was also being breastfed, but mom was detained at work, so Jane asked for permission to nurse her friend’s child, and permission was granted. The result was a happy, comforted baby and a happy mom.
Wow. That opened my eyes. It’s actually a good idea. If women chose to do this, their schedules could be more flexible. If you are a working mom, but don’t want a sitter to formula-feed your baby, you might try to find someone willing to be a wet nurse.
You probably already know at least some of this, but here are a few benefits of breastfeeding/wet nursing over formula.
1. Your baby gets high quality human milk meant for a human baby.
2. It’s the perfect temperature, no risk of scalding with hot formula.
3. It hasn’t been “tainted” at a factory or on the store shelf, although you will need to be sure the wet nurse doesn’t eat or drink anything your baby can’t have. (Some babies get colicky if mom has too much dairy, etc.)
4. Shelf products are subject to “recall” if an ingredient was missing or the nutrient proportions were incorrect, among other things.
5. It’s easily digestible.
6. Moms can pump and save their own milk, so as not to lose their own supply.
Concerns with Wet Nursing
There are concerns I have with this as well. First and foremost, how well can you really know a person? Do you know their health history? Any recent blood tests? Do they have any communicable diseases? How can you be sure YOUR child is adequately fed? There’s no empty formula cans to prove it. What about cleanliness? Is the wet nurse cleaning herself between feeding babies? If one child has a cold, the other may get it too. What kind of compensation are you willing to pay for this service?
But what if there wasn’t a choice? Perhaps a new mom has no choice but to return to work and pumping and storing milk at work isn’t practical. Or perhaps a mom is having difficulty producing enough milk to sustain her baby and now has to use formula. Then, the unthinkable happens: a major catastrophic event, the infant needs formula, and there is none to be had. Heaven forbid it requires a special-ordered one! If your baby relies on formula and you are unable to get more for any reason, you could be in real trouble.
Both nursing and non-nursing moms need to be prepared if this happens. Nursing moms need to be willing to help out others, and non-nursing moms need to be willing to accept that help – and both sides need to be gracious about it. It will undoubtedly be a difficult and potentially uncomfortable situation, at least initially, for everyone.
The Potential Wet Nurse’s Point of View
The following comment is from a woman who always felt she was “designed” (for lack of a better word) to be a wet nurse:
I know many women have difficulty producing enough milk, and I’m sure that’s always been the case, so I’m going to explain more from my side – having TONS of milk! If you never had enough milk, then the idea of women being wet nurses – producing enough milk to feed MORE than one child – could seem absurd to you.
When my son was in the NICU, he needed 20 ccs of milk each time he nursed. I was told to pump for 20 minutes each side, so I did, but I could easily have pumped for longer. After a few days, I realized the length of time was to help stimulate milk flow because most moms needed it. I certainly didn’t! I pumped 12 ounces every 2-3 hours (my son needed 20 ccs) and was never empty! At one point, I hand expressed the 20 ccs he needed into a bottle because it was faster and easier than going somewhere to pump. I ended up donating 150 ounces to a milk bank.
Feeding an extra infant (or two) would have been easy as can be, and (truthfully) a physical relief for me.
Skills and Assets
In survival groups, members are asked what skills they possess. I would ask what skills or services can they offer? A lactating mother is an asset. She can make the difference between life and death.
Children are a precious commodity. We need them to replenish our numbers, give us joy, and assist us in our latter years. If someone has a child that needs a wet nurse, that is a job only a lactating mother can do. Formula may not be available at any price. It’s also something a lactating mother can barter for money, supplies, or trade.
In our modern, high-tech society, the relative sterility of formula seems “safe” while the relative messiness of a wet nurse seems, well, messy and unsanitary. The benefits of breast milk/nursing over formula have been discussed a lot in recent years, but we haven’t quite reached the point that we have re-embraced wet nurses as a valid part of child-rearing.
Perhaps this is because it is something that simply feels like a historic relic of an upper class that didn’t want to raise their own children, but I encourage you to keep an open mind about this. Weigh the pros and cons for yourself.
As for me, I think it’s an idea whose time has come…again. And this time, it’s not just for the rich, and it’s definitely not for those who want to outsource raising their child.
Resources mentioned in this article
- Wet Nursing: A History from Antiquity to the Present by Valerie A. Fildes
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