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Before the development of baby formulas in the 20th century, when a mother was unable to breastfeed her baby, the baby's life was put in danger if a wet nurse was not available.There are many reasons why a mother is unable to lactate or to produce sufficient breast milk.Mothers who nurse each other's babies are engaging in a reciprocal act known as cross-nursing or co-nursing.A wet nurse can help when a baby's natural mother is unable or elects not to feed the infant.Up until the 19th century, most wet-nursed infants were sent far from their families to live with their wet nurse for up to the first three years of their life.

Valerie Fildes argued that "Britain has been lumped together with the rest of Europe in any discussion of the qualities, terms of employment and conditions of the wet nurse, and particularly the abuses of which she was supposedly guilty." According to C. While this argument was not founded in any sort of proof, the emotional arguments of medical researchers, coupled with the protests of critics of the practice slowly increased public knowledge and brought wet-nursing into obscurity, replaced by maternal breastfeeding and bottle-feeding.The wet nurse's own child would likely be sent out to nurse[?], normally brought up by the bottle rather than being breastfed.Reasons include the serious or chronic illness of the mother and her treatment which creates a temporary difficulty to nursing.Additionally, a mother's taking drugs (prescription or recreational) may necessitate a wet nurse if a drug in any way changes the content of the mother's milk.

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