From Lending a Helping Hand to Mourning a Loss: Why These Mothers Are Turning to Wet Nursing
Lactation consultant Kate DiMarco Ruck weighs in on the benefits and dangers of the practice.
When Alanta Guiler's daughter was stillborn, the 24-year-old from Las Vegas found an unconventional way to help her cope with her loss: She began wet nursing her colleague’s newborn baby.
“You would think that psychologically speaking, it would be traumatic for me,” Guiler, who was 35 weeks pregnant when she lost her daughter, told InsideEdition.com. “But it’s the complete opposite effect. It brings me a lot of peace. It reminds me I’m still a mom. It helps me get over my grief.”
Guiler, who is now actively searching for paid wet nursing work, shows that while the practice is often considered an ancient profession taken up by lower class Victorian women or forced upon slaves before the American Civil War, it’s a practice that's still very much alive today.
For Guiler, putting her milk to use was her way of honoring her late daughter, Inanna, who had a congenital brain defect.
After the stillbirth in April, Guiler started donating her milk to anyone who needed it, whether she found mothers through social media or contributed her supply to a milk bank.
“It’s nice that I’m donating, but I didn’t know what it’s like to feed a child,” Guiler said. “It was important to me throughout my pregnancy that I’d be able to breastfeed. For the first month [after Inanna passed away], I felt I wasn’t a mom anymore since my baby isn’t here.”
After she shared her experience in a Facebook post, a former colleague messaged to say Guiler would be welcome to wet nurse her baby, if she was interested.
“It was natural – I wasn’t hesitant or nervous,” the friend, Mariah Denson, told InsideEdition.com. “I was trusting a stranger, but [it was] something inside me, where I had no fear, I had no doubts, no concerns.”
Denson invited Guiler to breastfeed her child after only a month of knowing each other. The two women, who met while working at a call center, had bonded during their respective pregnancies.
“That brought us closer in such a short amount of time,” she said.
When Guiler lost her baby, Denson said it made her that much more appreciative of her own son, Sirod Thomas, and the joy he brings to Guiler.
“She’s turning her tragedy into a triumph,” Denson said.
While wet nursing a friend’s baby following the death of a child may seem like a strange choice for some, New York City-based international board-certified lactation consultant (IBCLC) Kate DiMarco Ruck supports the practice.
“We often find that mothers who make that choice report that this is a really positive step in their grieving process, really helps them through the loss of their child,” she said.
What’s more, DiMarco Ruck added, is that breastmilk from a mother or a wet nurse is always beneficial to a baby’s health.
“Breastmilk is a living, dynamic substance and it has the ability to meet the growing needs of every human baby,” she explained. “It’s what we’re designed to give them, and it’s what they are designed to expect.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusively breastfeeding babies until they are 6 months old, and continuing to breastfeed while introducing other foods until they are at least 1 year old.
To women participating in any sort of wet nursing, DiMarco Ruck said there are precautions for mothers to take, including making sure the wet nurse has no diseases she could pass on and making sure she isn’t on medication that can affect the baby through breastfeeding.
“It’s totally within your right to ask for a full medical history,” she said, suggesting mothers follow the guidelines of human milk donor banks, which typically screen for HIV, human T-lymphotropic virus (HTLV), Hepatitis B and C, tuberculosis and syphilis.
For the wet nurse, DiMarco Ruck advises checking the baby for oral conditions like thrush, hand-foot-and-mouth disease or lesions within the mouth, especially for wet nurses also breastfeeding their own baby.
She suggests keeping in constant contact with a lactation consultant during the relationship, who will have up-to-date information about how to best keep the baby and the wet nurse healthy.
“One of the big key pillars to this kind of relationship is informed consent,” DiMarco Ruck said. “Make sure you know that you’re keeping the lines of discussion open and that everybody is comfortable.”
For many parents, a wet nurse might be a cost effective way of feeding their baby, especially if a mother is unable to breastfeed.
“When it really comes down to it, all you need is a baby and a lactating breast,” DiMarco Ruck said, adding that it could cost hundreds to pay for pumping equipment and milk bags for donor milk, or even thousands of dollars on formula for a baby for a year.
The health payoff could be enormous too, especially for babies who already rely on donor milk.
DiMarco Ruck said the skin-to-skin contact between a baby and a woman’s breast – whether it be a wet nurse or a mother – can provide additional benefits to a baby’s emotional development.
“Active breastfeeding at the breast elicits an oxytocin response, and it’s what we call the love hormone,” she explained. “It creates a really calm and stable environment where the baby’s heartbeat matches the person’s heartbeat.”
DiMarco Ruck also explained direct contact between a woman’s breast and a baby’s saliva could have healing properties for the child.
“Their saliva can actually go up into the breast and the milk-making sites identify certain properties in the saliva like… what kind of germs the baby is exposed to,” she explained. “Milk making sites can identify that pathogen and in real time, make antibodies that go back into the milk.”
Studies also suggest breastfeeding can protect a woman from diseases and chronic illnesses, including type 2 diabetes, breast cancer, ovarian cancer, autoimmune diseases, asthma, and multiple sclerosis.
All told, there are multiple benefits to the practice, DiMarco Ruck said, but “there are a lot of stigmas associated with it, which is why we don’t talk about it as much today.”
She suggests the stigma may stem from a jealously some mothers may assume they’d feel but in response, DiMarco Ruck offers advice on how to create boundaries.
“I really think if you’re there with your baby, you’re the one they’re waking up to, you’re the one whose eyes they’re looking into, there’s definitely that level of trust,” she said.
For Mariah Denson, jealousy was not in her list of concerns when she agreed to let her former colleague and friend Alanta Guiler nurse her newborn.
“He loves her,” Denson said. “I didn’t mind it at all because she’s helping me and I’m also helping her. I was excited for her to have this experience.”
Denson added that being open with each other allowed the relationship to succeed.
“I trusted her 100 percent and the line of communication was very open,” Denson said. “When she first held my baby, I was a little nervous but I could just tell the way he was sleeping, he was comfortable. It put all my nerves at ease. I was just able to know I made the best decision.”
For a community of military moms, breastfeeding each other’s children is not about the relationship between the wet nurse and the baby, but the one between mothers who could use a helping hand.
Take Amanda Nitschke, 26. Just days after her second baby, Alex, was born, she found herself in the ICU due to complications from giving birth.
“On my son’s three-day doctor appointment, I went in there carrying him and said, ‘I think I’m going to pass out,’” Nitschke told InsideEdition.com. “I had a pulmonary embolism in my lung, I had sepsis and I had a very severe hemorrhage. I needed three blood transfusions.”
When she asked when she would be able to return to her family, doctors said they were not sure she would even leave the ICU alive.
“That was the scariest moment of my life. My husband has a 3-year-old at home and now a newborn and he has to make all this work,” Nitschke recalled.
She posted a desperate plea on Facebook, asking any nearby mother to donate what extra breast milk they had.
Several moms reached out immediately, offering frozen, bagged breast milk.
Mother-of-two Alyssa Szuma, whom Nitschke knew through her network of military wives, instead offered to nurse her newborn.
“I was so appreciative,” Nitschke said. “I was so thankful. I fell in love with these women who would help my son. I didn’t even feel jealous, I just felt relieved. Even if I passed, [my husband] was going to have something more than just my disabled mother helping him.”
Alex rarely settled when he was bottle fed, she said, but calmed almost immediately when he nursed from Szuma’s breast. Because the newborn became used to feeding from the breast, he latched to Nitschke easily when she was discharged from the ICU seven days later.
“My husband said it was a bit weird but Alyssa was super comfortable,” she said. “He was so happy someone would help.”
For Szuma, it was a way of returning the favor.
In 2013, when Nitschke was nursing her first son, Trent, Szuma welcomed her first daughter, Temperance. At around 8 months old, Temperance started losing weight because of an undiagnosed lip tie. It was also around this time that Szuma had trouble with her milk supply.
Through the grapevine of military moms, a friend connected Szuma to Nitschke, who was happy to meet her and help breastfeed her child.
“It was just like I was helping her pick up her kids’ toys,” Nitschke said. “It was just a natural thing you would do for anyone else.”
About a month later, Temperance began gaining weight and her lip tie was corrected. By then, Szuma was able to get her supply up and nurse on her own.
“There’s definitely a sisterhood there,” said another military wife, Lydia Kelley, now 27. “They say your family away from home is your military friends and it’s true. It’s a lot different than being just a regular civilian.”
Kelley’s husband was deployed after the birth of their third daughter, Trinity. She was also raising her older daughters Kairi, then 2, and Aurora, then 4, on her own.
In that time, she leaned on her best friend and fellow military mom Emily Schwinabart, whom she compared to a co-parent for her three daughters.
Schwinabart had just had her first son, Calvin, and was happy to lend a hand since her husband was also deployed.
“We kind of became partners in parenting,” Kelley said. “She was like my hero in that time. She was my support. She gave me strength.”
The practice started at a children’s expo where the pair were running a stand. Almost all at once, all three of Kelley’s daughters seemed desperate for her attention.
“Trinity was crying because she was hungry, and Kairi was fussing and Aurora needed to go potty, so it became a little bit chaotic,” Kelley recalled.
That’s when Schwinabart stepped in and offered to wet nurse Trinity and watch Aurora as Kelly took Kairi to the bathroom.
“I handed over my daughter, Trinity, who was just nursing on my breast, and Emily put her on her breast,” she said. “[Her son] Calvin was on one side, Trinity was on the other, and this lady saw us make this exchange and she was just in awe, like, ‘Oh my God — did that just happen?’”
Schwinabart added, simply, “I just put her on a boob and she was happy. It was either that or have a screaming baby.”
Schwinabart explained the scene was even more peculiar to witnesses since unlike herself, Kelley is Latina and her daughter has darker skin.
“People saw this very tan baby go from one boob to the other,” Schwinabart laughed. “Publicly wet nursing somebody else’s baby was kind of a shock to people, since my very pale child was obviously not hers.”
That was just the beginning. Since both of them had their hands full, they fell into the practice of wet nursing each other’s children if the other was held up with something else.
“Whoever was hungry was fed,” Schwinabart said. “When they get tired, they’d go to sleep. Problem solved. No fussy baby, no hungry baby.”
Both mothers agreed that because they spent a lot of time together and were recently tested, they felt comfortable doing what some mothers might consider a risky practice.
“She lives at my house, practically, and I know what she eats and I know she’s healthy and she nurses her own son, so it all became a thing that was so natural to us we didn’t even give it a second thought after that,” Kelley said.
Schwinabart added, “We were just through the maternity care system. When you’re pregnant, you get tested for everything so nobody had anything that could be transferring between babies.”
Unlike the other mothers, Alanta Guiler is looking for paid wet nursing work after losing her daughter.
“I’m trying to strictly be a wet nurse and get paid for it,” she said. “I want to find a live-in situation, where room and board is provided. I’d do household chores and watch the children.”
Scouring online communities like “Only the Breast” or “Eats on Feets” reveals multiple listings for “wet nurse” and “paid” – proving that while not mainstream, the industry exists.
However, Guiler says she has yet to find something promising.
She’s had a couple of inquiries, including an interview with a woman in Texas who plans to go back to work immediately after giving birth.
But for the most part, it’s been a challenge to find other mothers who are serious about her services.
“I’ve been offered four times to move out of state to feed a man, but I haven’t had any offers from an actual mom yet,” she said. “Unfortunately, it’s a lot of scam artists online.”
In the meantime, Guiler says she continues to donate her bagged breast milk to moms and NICU facilities in the area. She also reaches out to women who recently adopted newborns.
“My own family thinks I should let my milk dry up, but to me, my milk is very precious,” she said. “Hopefully, I’ll find somebody out there that needs me.”
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