Stories this year of thousands of Chinese infants made ill by contaminated milk powder briefly caught the world's attention. Yet in 2007 alone, according to the United Nations International Children's Educational Fund (UNICEF), one and a half million babies died who otherwise might not have done if they had been breastfed: a figure that compares with the number of those murdered at Auschwitz. The 'bottle versus the breast' controversy has raged for over a hundred years, but the no less contentious 'mother versus wet nurse' debate goes back much further in history.
Obviously, before the arrival of farming, all human infants were breastfed. Since the dawn of homo sapiens there was no other choice. As Valerie Fildes, the medical historian, puts it: 'Either an infant was breastfed by its mother, or some other mother, or it died.' Romulus and Remus could count themselves very lucky. The ancient Egyptians recognized the vital importance of breastfeeding. Very early images show the goddess Isis suckling her son Horos and thereby, symbolically, the pharaoh. He is breastfed at birth, at his coronation and at his death. At each of these critical junctures in his life it is breast milk that provides him with spiritual nourishment and bestows immortality. The Egyptian concept of sacred milk was widespread in the Greco-Roman world where we find tombs containing statuettes of divine nursing mothers like Demeter, Gaia and Hera. The first Christian images of breastfeeding are already to be found in the catacombs of Rome, where the Virgin Mary nurses Jesus.
The rich and powerful could always hire a wet nurse, a job that Fildes refers to as 'the second oldest profession'. The pharaohs, in reality, used wet nurses for their children; the royal wet nurse was held in such high esteem that her own children were considered 'milk siblings' of the pharaoh. The Code of Hammurahi, the first law code that we know of, provided regulations regarding wet nursing. Moses owed his life to a hired wet nurse, though unbeknown to her employer the wet nurse was actually his biological mother. The Greeks availed of duolos, special slaves or bondwomen, to feed their infants. Wet nurses were even hired to feed the babies of slaves, so that the slave would become fertile again and produce yet more children. In Plato's totalitarian state, outlined in his Republic, allegiance to the state would be fostered by raising all children in communal creches, away from their parents, where they were to be nourished by teams of wet nurses. In Rome, too, slaves were used as wet nurses by the rich, leading the early Christian author Tertullian to comment that an Emperor had been 'reared on the milk of a Christian'. But a sense of snobbery meant that the most favoured wet nurses for Romans would be Greeks, thus allowing the infant to imbibe cultural as well as physical sustenance.
Alarmed by the widespread use of wet nurses by the rich, Greek and Roman authors like Aristotle, Pliny, Cicero, Tacitus and Plutarch strongly condemned the practice. They feared that it would lead to decadence and the loosening of family ties. It was a woman's duty to nurse her own children, for this first familial bond of love formed the foundation that would later develop into a love of one's patria or country and into a willingness to do one's duty. A mother's duty was clear and to reject it was to jeopardize the stability of society itself. Nevertheless, upper-class women defied, or were forced to defy, these views and the use of a wet nurse was recognized as a status symbol.
The infant Muhammad, orphaned at birth, also survived thanks to the breast of a wet nurse. The Koran frequently emphasizes the importance of breastfeeding during the first two years of life. As in ancient Egypt, a wet nurse and her husband were considered to be a child's 'milk-parents' and the laws of Islam forbade milk-relatives and blood relatives to intermarry. …