I’ve nursed two babies but have only birthed one. I’ve pumped milk for my own daughter and for a handful of babies who I have never snuggled. Call me a modern day wet-nurse if you wish but personally I think the term is a bit outdated. I prefer “co-” or “cross-nurser.”
Historically, a wet-nurse was a lactating woman employed by an aristocratic family to nurse a baby whose mother was unable to breastfeed for reasons of physical inability, the need for immediate fertility after childbirth, or sheer prudishness. Today, wet-nurses are employed (some literally paid, others volunteers) in developing countries where infant mortality rates are high and artificial milk (aka formula) is prohibitively expensive or simply unavailable.
Co-nursing (also termed cross-nursing by the La Leche League) is a collaborative relationship in which a mother who cannot nurse her baby fully due to low milk supply, a medication or medical condition that is incompatible with breastfeeding, a surgery or hospital stay, etc., utilizes the help of fellow lactating mothers to meet her own baby’s needs. Co-nursers physically feed a baby whose mother is unable. Though long-term co-nursing relationships are not unheard of, these relationships are typically short-term. Most mothers who require co-nursers have a deep desire to nurse their babies as often as possible and/or when able.
Milk-sharing happens when expressed breast milk from a donor mom is donated directly to a mother-baby pair and fed to the baby via finger or spoon feeding, a Supplemental Nursing System (SNS) or bottle. Human Milk for Human Babies is a free, online, global milk-sharing network that facilitates safe, community-based milk-sharing, mother to mother. In addition, there are about a dozen Human Milk Banking Association Milk Banks across the US and Canada. These milk banks accept milk directly from donors and charge recipient families by the ounce to cover the cost of storage, transport and distribution. They mainly distribute to hospital NICUs.
I became a proud co-nurser and milk sharer through my amazing birthing community in Sarasota, Florida. With two free-standing birth centers (Rosemary Birthing Home and Birthways Family Birth Center) and a number of independently practicing licensed midwives, there is a unique and ever growing group of breastfeeding friendly families settled among the wealthy retirees here on the Gulf Coast of Florida. As far as I can tell, co-nursing and milk sharing have gone on in this community as long as the community has existed.
I dropped a few bags of frozen milk in the birthing home freezer and that was it.
I was first introduced to the idea of sharing my milk when my midwife put out a call for expressed breast milk via Facebook. I had been pumping milk somewhat regularly to build a personal freezer stash and thought, why not! And it was so easy. I dropped a few bags of frozen milk in the birthing home freezer and that was it. Since then, I’ve donated to several mamas in our community and recently co-nursed a baby whose mama was unable to nurse because of a medication she began taking immediately postpartum.
Some people get squiked out at the idea of sharing breastmilk — it is a bodily fluid after all — but my decision to donate my milk was an easy one. I firmly believe in the World Health Organization’s recommendations on newborn and infant feeding (see #18). Newborns and infants should be fed “expressed breast milk from an infant’s own mother” followed by “breast milk from a healthy wet-nurse or a human-milk bank” if the mother is unable to nurse. Formula should be used when those two options are not available.
I understand how difficult the seemingly easy act of nursing a baby can be for some mamas. I know many women struggling right now and formula feeding may be the best solution for them. Having said that, since having my daughter I have been amazed at my body’s ability to produce such an incredible, seemingly endless resource. I was lucky in those early months to be able to nurse around the clock and still pump 10 ounces a day without trying.
Wet-nursing may be an outdated term but mothers supporting mothers will never go out of style.
After donating to a few mamas in my community, I submitted my name and contact info to the local Human Milk for Human Babies Facebook page and started promoting their cause. I wanted mamas looking for the second best alternative to their own milk to be able to find it easily. Because I feel so strongly about breast milk being the best milk for babies, I now feel obligated to give what I can. If you had a virtually unlimited supply of water or cucumbers or Star Wars action figures, wouldn’t you give freely as well? Wet-nursing may be an outdated term but mothers supporting mothers will never go out of style.
If you are at all interested in giving OR receiving breast milk, I encourage you to check out Human Milk for Human Babies. They have Facebook pages for hundreds of cities and towns across the US and have a global network of milk sharing communities. Reach out to your local community of midwives, OBGyns, Doulas, Childbirth Educators, La Leche Legue Leaders and Lactation Counselors. Start talking about co-nursing and milk sharing in your playgroups and Mommy & Me classes. If you know a mama who is struggling with her nursing, encourage her to look into co-nursing or milk sharing before turning to formula. If you have a freezer you can start a community milk bank in your own home!
The benefits of co-nursing and milk-sharing are unending. What are the benefits of breastfeeding? Those are the benefits of co-nursing and milk-sharing. An added benefit is Community. Yes, I feel a great sense of pride in knowing I’m helping families who are dedicated to breastfeeding thrive. But, most importantly, I feel ever connected to my community knowing that if I were ever unable to nurse my baby there is a network of other mamas who would be there for me in my time of need. It’s an indescribable feeling but one that drives me to continue to co-nurse and milk-share as much as possible.