Co-operative Urban Breastfeeding:
What is outsourcing milk to some, is a cross-nursing village to others
by Jeninne Lee-St. John
TIME Magazine, Thursday, Apr. 19, 2007
They say breast milk is the perfect food for baby's mind and body.
Studies show that children who nurse may be healthier and happier and, if they breast-feed for
longer than seven months, have a higher IQ. Equally important, many believe, is the intense
bond that develops between mother and child Which is one reason most American moms don't
want to share the experience with anyone else.
Yet wet-nursing (hiring a woman to breast-feed your baby), which most of the Western world
abandoned in the 19th century, is making a minor comeback among young moms. So is
cross-nursing, in which mothers breast-feed one another's babies. Both reflect several cultural
trends: more U.S. babies--upwards of 70%--are breast-fed than at any time in at least 50 years,
more women work outside the home, and more young women undergo breast surgery.
Advocates argue that milk sharing lets women be good moms while fulfilling other goals. Says
Natalia Chang, 29, who has cross-nursed with her San Jose, Calif., neighbor: Breast milk is "a
communal commodity around here."
Not everyone is comfortable with this freewheeling baby feeding. Milk banks, which sell bottled
breast milk, already make some people squirm; the idea of physically breast-feeding a child not
your own evokes even deeper taboos. Rhonda Shaw, a sociologist who studies shared nursing in
New Zealand, where the trend is also up, says many confuse "adult meanings of eroticism with
breast feeding ...
Sometimes people associate a woman breast-feeding another woman's baby with pedophilia."
Even the pro-nursing group La Leche League has concerns about milk sharing because, in
addition to helpful immunities and antibodies, viruses can be passed through breast milk.
But women who share milk say it's good for babies and moms. Lorna Medina, 30, who stayed
home in Tucson, Ariz., after the birth of her child, also nursed the infant of her working sister for
a year. Medina says it created a unique bond with her niece, a preemie who needed breast milk
to grow. Chang says cross-nursing brought her closer to her neighbor. "It takes female
friendship to another level. You're trusting another person to nurture your child," she says. And
she adds that since she and her husband don't live near family, "it's also a way of building that
village or community that a lot of us crave."
Even if you accept that cross-nursing is for the collective good, wet nurses magnify the
discomfort that many people already feel about the wealthy employing less advantaged women to
do domestic duties. That's why the few women who hire wet nurses--mostly because they have
adopted, have had breast implants or reductions or have high-powered careers--keep it a secret,
for fear of being judged bad mothers.
Still, Robert Feinstock, who owns CertifiedHouseholdStaffing.com a Los Angeles--based agency
that supplies wet nurses nationwide, says demand has steadily risen in the past four years, even
though the standard fee of $1,000 a week is more than the average nanny gets. Brenda (whose
last name is withheld to protect her clients' privacy), 42, has wet-nursed 10 babies in the past
seven years partly to help send her own two kids to college. She has mulled over the social
implications of her work--because she's black and eight of the families she has worked for are
white. "A friend asked me, Don't you feel like you're the mammy?" she recalls. But she finds her
job fulfilling, and sometimes amusing. "If you're someplace with the family and the baby starts to
pull at your blouse or put his hand in your bra, that can be embarrassing," she says, laughing. - -
"Unfortunately, the role of obstetrics has never been to help women give birth. There is a big difference
between the medical discipline we call "obstetrics" and something completely different, the art of
midwifery. If we want to find safe alternatives to obstetrics, we must rediscover midwifery. To rediscover
midwifery is the same as giving childbirth back to women. And imagine the future if surgical teams were at
the service of the women and the midwives, instead of controlling them."
- Michel Odent, MD, French Obstetrician, 2006.