Why Is A Wet Nurse Needed? Potential Risk And Its Alternatives

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Wet-nursing is an alternative feeding practice from older times where a lactating mother breastfeeds a baby that is not her own. While people also call it cross-nursing, they are both different. Wet-nursing is usually done for money and is full-time breastfeeding. On the other hand, cross-nursing is when a mother breastfeeds her baby, and occasionally a lactating family member or a friend also nurses the baby (1).

A healthy, well-nourished lactating mother may usually nurse more than one infant comfortably. Mothers may choose to wet-nurse or have their babies wet-nursed for various reasons. Wet-nursing is an effective technique to ensure all infants get precious breast milk. Following certain considerations and pre-requisites can make the process work smoothly and safely. Read on to learn more about the possible reasons, risks, and alternatives to wet-nursing.

Reasons To Choose Wet-Nursing

According to experts, wet-nursing is a suitable choice if you cannot breastfeed (2). Here are some situations when a mother may be unable to breastfeed and consider wet-nursing another baby or have her baby wet-nursed (3).

  • You cannot breastfeed your baby due to some medical condition.
  • You have adopted a baby whose biological mother isn’t available for breastfeeding, and you are not lactating.
  • You are a same-gender couple intending to breastfeed the baby.
  • You cannot breastfeed your baby because they are ill or born prematurely, but you need to maintain your milk supply and wish to breastfeed.

Potential Risks Of Wet-Nursing

Although wet-nursing is a beneficial practice, it does have potential problems that one must know before opting for it.

  • Infection transmission from the wet nurse to the baby or vice-versa. It may happen if the wet-nursing mother and the baby have not been thoroughly tested for infectious diseases.
  • Inadequate milk supply to one or both babies may happen when a mother is wet-nursing another baby.
  • Imbalanced milk composition inappropriate for a baby’s age as the wet nurse is feeding two or more babies of different age groups.
  • Issues with the let-down reflex may crop up due to overproduction and oversupply of breast milk, especially if the mother is wet-nursing multiple babies.

How To Hire A Wet Nurse For Your Baby?

You may hire a professional wet nurse from a reputed agency or make a personal arrangement with a lactating mother whom you know. Prefer a mother who has a baby of your infant’s age. Below are some points to consider before making the final decision.

  • Look for a wet nurse with a similar lifestyle as the biological mother. For instance, if you don’t drink caffeinated beverages, such as coffee, it is advisable to find a wet nurse of the same preference. It ensures that the baby comfortably adjusts to the wet nurse.
  • Ensure the wet nurse follows healthy lifestyle practices, such as no smoking, no alcohol or drink occasionally, and no use of illicit substances. It is suitable to have a mother who eats a healthy, well-balanced diet and exercises regularly.
  • Run a check on the wet nurse’s current health status and medical history. It applies even to a wet nurse who you know personally. Screening is preeminent to detect chronic or long-term diseases. It is vital to run tests on diseases transmitted through breast milk, such as HIV infection. Speak to your doctor to know more about such diseases.
  • Enquire if she takes any medications or health supplements. These substances could pass into breast milk and affect a baby’s health eventually. Similarly, inform your wet nurse if your baby is on any medications or supplements for any health conditions.

Additionally, one could discuss personal care practices with the wet nurse to ensure optimum hygiene during feeding.

Alternatives For Wet-Nursing

You may consider the following alternatives to wet-nursing if you cannot breastfeed your baby for some reason.

  1. Pumped or expressed breast milk:  It is a suitable option for mothers who have a sufficient milk supply, but their babies cannot breastfeed temporarily. Observe the standard hygiene principles to express and store breast milk, which you may feed to your baby through a bottle, spoon, or cup. You may also freeze the breast milk below -18°C (0°F) for up to 12 months, although it is best to use it within six months (4).
  1. Infant formula: It is a useful option when breastfeeding the baby isn’t possible entirely or partially. You may select an age-appropriate, iron-rich formula for your baby after consulting your pediatrician. You may also breastfeed intermittently while the baby is on formula.
  1. Banked milk: For mothers who don’t have enough milk supply and don’t want to formula-feed, human milk banks could be an alternative. Human milk banks store breast milk expressed by donor mothers (5). One can collect breast milk from a milk bank using a prescription given by the doctor. Speak to your doctor to know more about the best and reliable milk banks in your region.

Wet nursing is an age-old practice of hiring a lactating woman to breastfeed a baby when nursing is not practicable by the biological mother. It provides the baby a chance to benefit from the nutritional qualities of breastmilk. It is important to ensure that the wet nurse follows a healthy and similar lifestyle to your own. You should know about the wet nurse’s health status, medications, and supplements to prevent the risk of transmission of infection or other substances that may reach the baby via breast milk.

Key Pointers

  • Wet nursing is the practice of breastfeeding a baby other than one’s own.
  • A wet nurse may be appointed if the mother is unable to breastfeed due to health issues, is unavailable, or the baby is adopted.
  • Drawbacks of wet nursing may include inadequate milk supply to the infant or infection transmission.
  • It is advisable to hire a wet nurse after performing a background check on her medical history, lifestyle practices, and usage of medications or health supplements.

References:

MomJunction's articles are written after analyzing the research works of expert authors and institutions. Our references consist of resources established by authorities in their respective fields. You can learn more about the authenticity of the information we present in our editorial policy.
1. Thursday Tip: Wet-Nursing and Cross-Nursing; La Leche League Canada
2. Wet-nursing; NCT
3. Emily E Stevens et al.; A History of Infant Feeding; NCBI
4. Human Milk Storage Guidelines; CDC
5. Wet Nursing In Emergencies; World Nutrition Journal
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Arushi Agrawal

(IBCLC)
Arushi Agarwal is a certified lactation consultant (IBCLC) who started as a mom. She works at Surya Hospital, Jaipur. Her struggles through the journey of breastfeeding led her to her mission of passionately creating awareness about the struggles of breastfeeding and the need for help. She envisions to make every mother's breastfeeding journey a memorable and enjoyable experience.

Swati Patwal

Swati Patwal is a clinical nutritionist and toddler mom with over eight years of experience in diverse fields of nutrition. She started her career as a CSR project coordinator for a healthy eating and active lifestyle project catering to school children. Then she worked as a nutrition faculty and clinical nutrition coach in different organizations. Her interest in scientific writing... more