Forgotten Crafts: Wet Nurses

A min, minnemoeder or zoogster is a wet nurse, a woman who breastfeeds somebody else's child. Today nobody in the western world would consider hiring someone to breastfeed their baby: either they do the breastfeeding themselves or they give the baby a bottle. So why did our ancestors use wet nurses?

The first group of people that outsourced the feeding of their children (and their whole education for that matter) was the nobility. Noble women considered feeding and raising children as way below their position. Therefore, they would hire a wet nurse to do the task for them. Finding a good wet nurse however, was no easy task. The belief was that the wet nurse would transmit her health and character to the infant through the milk. Therefore, she had to be well fed, of strong composition, healthy and of honest and quiet character. She also had to be willing to move in with the noble household. When she did, she usually took her own children with her and actually took care of the noble child as one of her own.

This habit was copied in the late 17th and 18th century by the new bourgeoisie. These classes however, lacked the money to house the wet nurse themselves so they would either send their child to the wet nurse or have her come by at feeding time only. The problem with this was that the min would often take on to many infants in order to make a living. If she could not produce enough milk for all of them, she would supplement breastfeeding with cheap porridge hence leaving the children badly fed.

Sometimes the parents were simply incapable of breastfeeding their own child. If the mother produced no milk, was ill, or had a breast infection she could not feed the child. If she died during labor, which sadly often was the case, the father was left with a baby and no mother milk. The alternative to breastfeeding was bottle-feeding the child with bread porridge. This however, was a very risky method of which most infants died. Bottles were not sterilized, the water used to make the porridge was usually infected and the porridge itself was far too heavy giving the child intestinal problems.

Therefore, if you could afford to do so, you would find a min and not expose your child to the dangers of bottle-feeding. For the very poor, this was unfortunately not an option.

Not only status and necessity made women not breastfeed their own child. The many cultural rules about breastfeeding made it a very impractical task in daily life. The mother was not allowed to have intercourse during the whole lactation period, which for many couples may have been a huge obstacle. She was also not to breastfeed the child during menstruation. These cultural convictions led to the early introduction of additional feeding of porridge with a bottle or, if people could afford it, the hiring of a wet nurse.

Fighting Infant Mortality With Mother Milk
During the 18th century all these practices were replaced by new insights. The midwife got competition from the male doctor that had a far more scientific approach to the child feeding issue. At the time infant mortality was a staggering 25% in the Netherlands (today this is only around 1%). The government was worried that not enough children would survive to make a large enough workforce that could sustain the economy. Therefore, scientific studies were carried out and soon it was discovered that the very bad quality and low hygiene of bottle-feeding was the major cause especially among the poor.

Campaigns were hence set up to inform midwifes and mothers about the benefits of breastfeeding. Especially among the bourgeoisie the ideas found acceptance and mothers started to breastfeed themselves. By the end of the 19th century breastfeeding had found major acceptance (about 67% of infants was breastfed around 1860) in the Netherlands. It had become a vital part of a reinvention of women's role in the household. Were the Dutch housewife in former centuries had always been very independent and earning money, now she was supposed to be the ideal mother that stayed at home investing all her time and attention in the care for her husband and children.

Breastfeeding And Motherhood Today
Today excellent artificial baby milk and high hygiene standards make bottle-feeding a save a good way to feed a baby. However, 80% of the Dutch mothers breastfeed their child at least in the first three months. Around three months after birth most Dutch women go back to work and the breastfeeding rate drops to 30%.

In a way modern Dutch mothers are massively giving up on the 19th and early 20th century ideal of full-time motherhood as the ultimate source of female happiness. It seems they are heading back to the old model of the independent but caring mother that gives equal importance to work as she does to family. This is reflected in the fact that although about 70% of the Dutch women work, only 30% of them do so full-time.

The government would like to see more women work full-time and measures are taken to make day care financially more attractive. But despite these efforts, Dutch women rarely work more than 24 hours a week. Studies that try to explain this tendency usually point at the practical problems with day care such as the costs and the inflexibility of opening hours. In other studies employers are said to be inflexible which makes a full-time job incompatible with motherhood. However, if you monitor online message boards of women discussing the combination of a full-time job and motherhood it becomes clear that many women fear being a bad mother when putting their child in childcare for more than 3 days a week.

Could it be that working full-time collides with their subconscious cultural baggage that tells them that a good mother takes care of her children herself? That hiring someone else to do it for you, just as the min in the old days, is something just a desperate or lazy woman would do? Or is it that secretly we just love being a mother and do not want to give it up for work? And if that is the case, I wonder, isn't that actually a good thing? Isn't motherhood a great part-time job many women wouldn't miss for any money in the world? I wonder...