A photo of Jessica Colletti, 27, went viral with such vigor that it almost caused internet crashes after she posted it online in early August. The photo depicts a smiling Colletti breastfeeding her son, Lucien, 16 months old, and 18-month-old Mateo Interrante, the son of Colletti’s friend, Charlie, 25. In many circles, the photo went viral because of the loving vision of maternal generosity it portrays. In other circles, it represents scandal, scorn, and a decay of moral decency.
Colletti and Interrante first met about a year ago at a photo shoot of new mothers. Interrante mentioned she was having breastfeeding difficulties: she’s a barber not able to pump on the job and Mateo wasn’t taking too well to formula. Colletti offered to help with what she had flowing abundantly. The women quickly became friends, the shared breastfeeding continues, and the “milk brothers” are inseparable. Charlie and Mateo even moved in with the Colletti family to facilitate Colletti’s nursing of Mateo.
If you were a new breastfeeding mother and had a friend in a situation similar to Interrante’s, would you consider breastfeeding your friend’s baby?
The Long Healthy History of Wet Nursing
What Colletti is doing for her friend is called wet nursing, cross-nursing, shared nursing, and co-nursing, with the term differing around the world and at different times in history. It’s been happening ever since babies started being born.
There are many reasons why a woman might choose to nurse somebody else’s baby:
- The baby’s mother died during childbirth.
- She’s too sick to nurse.
- She’s taking medications that might harm the baby.
- She’s having difficulty or is simply unable to produce milk or get the baby to latch on.
- Breast implants may hinder her ability to produce milk.
- Social or professional obligations make breastfeeding difficult.
The practice lost popularity in the United States during World War II when bottles and powdered infant formula made it possible for new mothers to work for the war effort while leaving their babies with sitters. Wet nurses remain invaluable in underdeveloped parts of the world, especially where maternal mortality rates are high.
Wet Nursing Among the Rich and Famous
- The Biblical Deborah wet-nursed Rebekah, the wife of Isaac honored as the mother of Israel.
- Muhammad, the Islamic prophet, was wet-nursed by Halimah bint Abi Dhuayb. When an Islamic woman wet-nurses more than one child, sharia law considers the children as closely related as siblings and their intermarriage is forbidden.
- Longuet de la Giraudiére wet-nursed France’s King Louis XIV.
- A Mrs. Pack wet-nursed Prince William, Duke of Gloucester, son of the England’s future Queen Anne and her husband, Prince George of Denmark and Norway, Duke of Cumberland.
- In the 17th- and 18th-century British Isles, royal and aristocratic mothers rarely nursed their own children. It was common for a professional wet nurse to earn more money than her laborer husband. Wet-nursing a royal baby came with a lifetime of honor.
- Judith Waterford achieved legendary status. It is said that in 1831, when she was 81 years old, Waterford could still produce two quarts of breast milk every day.
- In the pre-Civil War United States, wives of slave-owners frequently handed their babies over to slave women for wet-nursing.
- The actress Salma Hayek made headlines in 2009, while in Sierra Leone, Africa, filming footage for the TV show Nightline when, in mid-interview, she began breastfeeding a week-old African baby who was very obviously undernourished. The baby shares the same birthday with Hayek’s 1-year-old daughter who was still being breastfed. In explaining the spontaneous act, Hayek recalled stories of her great-grandmother who nursed someone else’s baby in her Mexican village.
Fictional Wet Nurses
- In first-century Rome, historian Valerius Maximus recorded the story of Roman Charity, in which a woman sneaks into jail to breastfeed her father who is sentenced to death by starvation.
- William Shakespeare’s Juliet was wet-nursed.
- Natasha Rostov, in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, suffers through three wet nurses before choosing to breastfeed her children herself, a decision that scandalizes her family and physician.
- In The Grapes of Wrath, the mother of a baby who dies at birth shares her breast milk with an impoverished dying man because there is no other form of nourishment available to him.
- Wet nursing is a common element throughout George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones and the book series, A Song of Ice and Fire, upon which Thrones is based.
Although Interrante experienced difficulty pumping breast milk while on her job as a barber, the Affordable Care Act does include a provision that requires all companies with 50 or more employees to provide a private place for mothers to pump during the first year following childbirth. The ACA requires employers to allow new mothers ample time and scheduling flexibility to express milk as needed.
- Blidner, Rachelle. "Pennsylvania mom posts photo breastfeeding friend’s son and own kid as 'milk brothers'." NY Daily News. NYDailyNews.com, 14 Aug. 2015. Web. 20 Aug. 2015.
- Robb, Alice. "Bring Back the Wet Nurse!" New Republic. New Republic, 22 July 2014. Web. 20 Aug. 2015.
- Cochrane, Kira. "The truly surprising thing about Salma Hayek breastfeeding an African baby: it's quite moving." The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited, 11 Feb. 2009. Web. 20 Aug. 2015.
- "Wage and Hour Division (WHD): Break Time for Nursing Mothers." United States Department of Labor. US Department of Labor, n.d. Web. 20 Aug. 2015.