It may not be the oldest profession, but it’s gotta come close. No, not that one. Being a wet nurse. Wet nurses breastfeed babies who aren’t their own. Through much of history, wealthy families employed them to feed and take care of the children so the mom didn’t have to. But wet-nurses weren’t only for the upper classes; the poor would have used them as well, either because mom didn’t have enough milk or because her job made caring for a baby impossible. Sadly, it isn’t talked about much, or done, in the modern USA, neither does La Leche League encourage it. I’m sure there are complicated socio-historical reasons for that, but I hope that changes within the next few decades.
While a lot of women have trouble with inadequate milk supply, sore nipples, mastitis, and other problems that make nursing their baby difficult or even impossible, I’m not one of them. Had I lived in any past century, I almost certainly would have been employed as a wet nurse, if for no other reason than my own physical comfort. I suffer from what medical professionals refer to as hyperlactation, meaning I make a lot of milk.
Hyperlactation: Gory Details
I have read stories about what a nightmare breastfeeding was for some moms. Not having any milk, or enough, seems to be a common problem. Based on what I have seen and read, women like me who have A LOT of milk are in the minority and always have been. Most of the literature discusses having too little milk or other troubles breastfeeding. I’ve read many rapturous odes about how wonderful it is to breastfeed (in theory). So, what is it like to actually be able to nurse your baby with enough left for two or three more?
Breastfeeding was never painful for me (except a few times when the babies would bite me) but it was messy, especially for the first three months or so until my milk supply stabilized. You have no idea how messy. Over a decade later, thinking about being soggy so much from leaking milk still makes me squirm with physical discomfort. To breastfeed is to be perpetually damp, to spend a fortune on disposable nursing pads, to go through at least two shirts every day. Occasionally, milk will let down spontaneously if you haven’t fed your child in a while. This happened once when I was in public about a week after giving birth. Imagine taking two cups of warm milk and pouring them down your chest slowly, over the course of a half hour. And no, it is in no way sexy. It is disgusting and uncomfortable. The clammy stains reaching to the bottom of my t-shirt. Milk was leaking out the entire ninety minutes of the class, so it never dried. And that was just the extra that leaked out, I was still engorged and uncomfortable until I could go pump.
At this point, you might wonder why I didn’t just shove something in my bra to absorb the milk. I did, but it didn’t make a difference. I used reusable nursing pads, although I eventually realized I needed the super-absorbant disposable pads for the first few months but those are just for leakage, not for heavy-duty practical wear when it’s time to nurse. In fact, for the first few months, I had THREE fabric pads on each side, and they still soaked through every few hours. I had to carry an extra bra and shirt with me no matter where I went, even just to the local park. At night, I put a tea towel in there and one under me so the mattress didn’t get soaked, and I still had to change the towel in the middle of the night. Often I ran out of disposable pads and had to use the microfiber cloth diaper inserts until I could make it to the store. Eventually, I stopped buying the disposable pads altogether and exclusively used the microfiber inserts.
I had to carry an extra bra and shirt with me no matter where I went, even just to the local park. You know those little pea-shooter water guns kids play with? The ones that can shoot people a few feet away? I have shot milk like that right before my kids nursed. I felt bad for my kids because it has to have been like sucking on a fire hydrant.
Being engorged full of milk was uncomfortable, but more the post-Thanksgiving-overstuffed uncomfortable than an injured-painful feeling. Both pumping and nursing provided massive relief and made life more comfortable for me as well as the kids. If I was fully engorged and couldn’t nurse, it really did get extremely uncomfortable. Did you know that breasts can get stretch marks? Take a moment to think about the degree of internal pressure that would cause that.
Even when my kids weren’t with me, I knew when it was time to feed them. You know how it feels when you are tense and you relax the muscles? You can feel them “let down” and physically lower a bit. For some women, let down feels painful, as though their skin has been snapped by an elastic band.
Bonding and Weaning
As soggy and gross as it could be, especially in the first few months, I loved nursing my kids. I nursed them for over a year each. Why so long? Because it was easy. When they were upset or hurt, all I had to do was nurse them and their world was magically better. When they were hungry, there was food on tap, no prep necessary. Yes, that meant I had to be there for every meal (unless they used a bottle of pumped milk) until they started eating solid foods, but for me it was so much easier than using formula. One my children was born with a cleft lip and palate and was unable to breastfeed, and she had to use specialty bottles. I did not love the bottles.
My little ones always knew mom was there and mom was a safe place. They formed very solid bonds with me. As an added bonus, it was good for all our health AND it helped me lose some baby weight. I worried that I would not form as close a bond with my bottle-fed baby since I could not nurse her. She is nearly two, now, and I still feel a little sad about it. While it is true that we did not bond over nursing, I was able to find other ways to bond with her.
My breastfed children were mad when I finally weaned them. I think they would’ve done anything to keep me going, but I knew it was time to stop. I was ready to move forward, and, really, it’s my body and they had no physical need for it anymore. They weren’t infants. Some moms may be done nursing in months (or weeks, or days) while others happily nurse their babies well into toddlerhood. And some kids are done before mom. As they say, different strokes for different folks.
All in all, having enough milk to nurse a few extra kids is messy, frequently uncomfortable, but totally worth it. Pumping helped relieve some of the pressure. Since the milk went to a milk bank, it helped other babies who really needed it.
And the internet is a wonderful thing. Without it, finding a nursing bra in a K cup would be impossible.