“World Breastfeeding Week,” which wrapped up on Friday, sought to normalize one of the most basic and natural functions of motherhood. But when it comes to the female breast and the various tasks it performs, things never fail to become inflammatory. The hoopla this time around centered on a woman named Jessica Anne Colletti, 26, who posted a photo on Facebook of herself breastfeeding her toddler and her friend’s toddler at the same time (cue the audible gasps).
Predictably, the photo took off on social media and proved to be divisive. “As long as her friend is ok with it, then it’s perfectly fine,” one Facebook user wrote. “Yeah I don’t know how I feel about this,” another commenter opined. “I truly believe it is a sacred bond that should only be shared by mother and baby.”
Colletti told the Daily Mail Australia that her friend was struggling with breastfeeding her young son, who also did not take well to formula. “She was breastfeeding but didn’t have time to pump,” Colletti said of her friend. “I was already breastfeeding my son and it just made sense to nourish him in the same way. He was having issues with the formula his previous sitter had given him and his issues resolved when formula was no longer necessary.”
Admittedly, there are some risks associated with the practice of so-called “cross-nursing.” The biggest concern is infection: breast milk can transmit diseases like HIV, tuberculosis, and hepatitis. The La Leche League also points out that sharing breast milk can diminish a nursing mother’s supply, leaving her own child with a lack of nourishment. And in certain scenarios, cross-nursing serves very little purpose. The composition of a mother’s milk will change over time to meet the needs of her growing baby; if the mother of an 18-month-old shares her milk with a four-month-old, the younger infant may not be receiving the specific components he needs.
But provided that the milk is coming from a trusted source with a similarly-aged infant, cross-nursing can be a viable and salutary source of breast milk. Throughout history, in fact, families have hired wet nurses to feed infants whose mothers were either not alive or not particularly interested in nursing. Breast-feeding was long considered unfashionable in aristocratic circles, and was usually outsourced to women of a lower status. Wet nurses have nourished a long line of famous men, from the Biblical Moses to a very sombre baby Louis XIV, who was painted at the breast of his nurse.
Nowadays, women who cannot nurse are able to turn to certified milk banks, which either sell or donate pasteurized human milk. Milk banks screen mothers for diseases and lifestyle choices (like smoking and drinking), and so they provide the safest avenue for cross-nursing. But there is no need to pounce on mothers like Colletti and her friend, who opt for a more intimate arrangement. More than anything else, our aversion to the concept of breastfeeding another woman’s child is cultural. As sociologist Rhonda Shaw put it in a 2007 Guardian piece about the resurgence of the wet nurse in Britain:
“The exchange of body fluids between different women and children, and the exposure of intimate bodily parts make some people uncomfortable. The hidden subtext of these debates has to do with perceptions of moral decency. Cultures with breast fetishes tend to conflate the sexual and erotic breast with the functional and lactating breast.”