Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Question from Christy - Breast feeding in the upper classes

When upper class women during the Tudor era gave birth did they nurse their own children?

I'm assuming that "regular" women (the other 98% of the population) would have nursed their babies nearly all of the time but what about Royal and Upper class women?

If they used a wet-nurse was this "required" by standards of the day or did they have the option to nurse their babies themselves if they wanted to. I thought of this when I was thinking about the little baby boy that Katherine of Aragon gave birth to that died when he was still an infant...did she nurse him? If she didn't but had wouldn't he have had a better shot? Were babies isolated from the large groups of people while they when they were first born, like parent's tend to do today, or was this concept just not around at the time?


Related thread on Anne's desire to breast feed Elizabeth:


PhD Historian said...

Women of wealth and status did not ordinarily breastfeed their own children. Infants born to wealthy women were routinely turned over immediately to a wetnurse. And the percentage of "regular" women who did not engage wetnurses was probably somewhat lower than the 98%. Servants of many kinds were employed by women of all socio-economic ranks, including wetnurses. The ability to afford a wetnurse was seen as a sign of higher status, even among "regular" folk. I suspect the percentage of women who employed wetnurses was above 25%, and perhaps as much as 50%.

It is very unlikely that Katherine of Aragon breastfed any of her children, including the infant boy who died after about one month. And while it is true that maternal antibodies are transmitted to a newborn infant via breastmilk, he would have acquired similar antibodies from a wetnurse. Without knowing his precise cause of death, we cannot even speculate on whether or not breastfeeding by a wetnurse played any role in his death.

Infants of the wealthy were indeed placed in nurseries within the larger household, at least to the extent that they were rarely brought in to public functions. Or so the limited evidence suggests. But this was not a conscious effort to protect the child from contagion, since disease and transmission of infections was very poorly understood in the period. Rather, placing infants in nurseries within the household was a practical consideration, making it easier to accommodate the specialized needs of infants and children by gathering them in one location.

Nancy said...

I wonder if it is possible, also, that upper class and especially royal women understood that breast feeding affects fertility. Did they perhaps avoid it so as to get back to breeding heirs again?

Angie said...

I think that babies were automatically given to a wet nurse, but the mother would have a say in other affairs (Example- Anne Boleyn had a large say in Elizabeth's clothing.) They had both wet and dry nurses back then. Dry nurses were those who rocked the cradle or did the laundry.

Nasim said...

Nancy – in Merry E. Wiesner’s work , “Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe”, it is implied that there was a lack of awareness about the fact that breastfeeding affected fertility. Rather women were discouraged from breastfeeding because it was believed that the breast milk would become corrupted by sexual intercourse thus affecting the child; that nursing would affect their physical attractiveness and that a woman’s primary duty was to her husband. So another woman, of good character, was selected for the task.

Priscilla said...

PhD Historian said: while it is true that maternal antibodies are transmitted to a newborn infant via breastmilk, he would have acquired similar antibodies from a wetnurse.

Hi, I just found this blog yesterday and have been eagerly reading through the archives since then :) It's a lot of fun!

I just wanted to point out that the quoted piece isn't necessarily so. Breast milk changes over time- the breast milk of a woman whose baby is newborn is different from that of a woman whose baby is older.

Infants have very permeable digestive tracts, to enable them to absorb antibodies from their mothers. Thus, the breast milk of a new mother is packed with antibodies. A child older than a year has a more developed gut and immune system, therefore their mother's milk will not have as many antibodies.

What this means in terms of wetnursing is that a wetnurse might not provide as many antibodies as a birth mother, and might not even provide correct nutrition (as the nutritional content of breast milk also changes over time.) A woman whose child was not the same age as the other she was nursing would not be be providing proper nutrition tailored for an infant (colostrum and early milk are thick and fatty; later milk is more watery. This even varies during nursing session duration, as the breast is designed to give more fluid first and more calories later.) I think this may have been one reason that royal children were often sickly compared to peasants.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting reading, both about the Royal History. I've just watched a TV report on Breast Feeding and Breast Milk Bottle Banks and Modern Wetnurses. They programme made a comment on Elizabeth the First not being fed by Anne Bolyn and then I found this web site.