Breastfeeding seminars

The Complicated History of Breastfeeding and Black Breastfeeding | by Yewande Adeleke | April 2022

White babies, black breastmilk

A nurse known as “Aunt Judy”, circa 1835; Source: History of bunk beds

BBLack of breastfeeding has a complicated history dating back to the era of the slave trade and the use of wet nurses. During this time, black female slaves were forced to breast-feed white babies; a practice known as “wet breastfeeding”.

By the 17th century, the idea of ​​breast-feeding slaves was very popular in Europe and had become a form of intimate work. It was an act that reflected the struggles, exploitation and dehumanization of black mothers.

There may have been different forms of breastfeeding in the past, but it became more oppressive during pre-war slavery.

The practice of breastfeeding has existed since biblical times. For example, Moses is an example of a child who was nursed by a Hebrew nurse. However, the case of female slaves used as nurses poses a little different situation because black slaves were forced to nurse the children of their masters.

For so long, black mothers were not allowed to raise and feed their babies, but had to feed other babies. For most of U.S. history, black breastfeeding meant breastfeeding white babies, primarily at costs children of black women.

At the time, many upper-class women chose not to breastfeed for social reasons. Since some of them were planning to breastfeed old fashioned and figured that would keep them from dressing fashionably, a preferable option was to hire nannies.

Apart from the fear that breastfeeding would ruin a woman’s figure, other reasons for using wet nurses were due to the time-consuming nature of breastfeeding or the death of a mother during childbirth.

Before long, the women slave owners began to get pregnant at the same time as the enslaved women, so when the babies came, the nursing slaves would be forced to nurse on behalf of mothers. As soon as a black slave gave birth to her child, she had to be immediately entrusted to a new white lady.

Black women who nursed white women’s babies were referred have like “nurses” or “moms”.

Doctors also didn’t help matters as they argued that even for young girls who were childless, continuous breast sucking stimulated lactation. For this reason, some enslaved women who ended up pregnant didn’t even get a chance to breastfeed until they were immediately offered for sale in the market to buy as wet nurses.

An illustration of a nanny with a child; Source: face2faceAfrica

The use of enslaved women as nurses was seen as a form of gender exploitation only because the women involved were used as workers and reproducers at the same time. The process of breastfeeding separated a black slave from her actual baby, as she was often saddled with her master’s baby.

A historian, Marissa Johnson, Remarks that:

“Feeding white children when you’re racially oppressed by the white race was traumatic to say the least.”

Indeed, the history of wet nursing embodied certain complexities as it demonstrated unequal power relations between lower-class women and wealthy, well-to-do women.

Describing what the process was like, Emily West and RJ Knight underline in their article on breastfeeding that:

“Men and women slavers manipulated the mothering of enslaved women through their physical labor, reproductive abilities, and appropriation of their breast milk.”

The harsh reality was that while nursing slaves nursed white babies, their own children were bottle-fed. This was long before infant formula became popular as a healthy alternative to breast milk for infants.

Breast milk has always played a big role in the development of newborns and that is why many white slave owners wanted it for their babies, regardless of who it came from. They wanted their children to get more nutrients and grow faster.

Through it all, less attention has been paid to breastfeeding black babies. The idea of ​​breastfeeding was usually to the detriment of black children and in severe cases they died of starvation or malnutrition. In fact, many black babies died during slavery because they were not breastfed, but were fed concoctions of powdered milk and dirty water.

A Mammy was a slave who was forced to nurse her master’s children, usually at the expense of her own children; Source: Public Service Broadcasting

Slave women who nursed white babies were treated differently. During breastfeeding, they appreciated more comfort and had easy access to their masters. Due to closeness and nurturing, babies who grew up on black female breast milk began to develop close bonds with their milk providers rather than their actual mothers. However, this didn’t last long as any form of connection was severed when the white babies grew up.

After the nursing process was completed, the nursing slaves were sent to the fields and were not to have contact with the babies. In rare cases, the enslaved woman’s child and the white child were raised together in their younger years.

  1. Some historians have valued that one-fifth of slave owners in the Antebellum South relied on enslaved nannies to care for their children. It seemed that the need for wet nurses was so crucial that, according to the count of the slave-owning population in 1850, there could have been as many as 70,000 wet nurses in the same region.
  2. If a slave was not available for nursing, it was possible to to rent out another slave residing in a different household to do so.
  3. Many nannies were not allowed to sleep when the child was asleep. On the contrary, they continued their household chores.
  4. In many cases, women had to to feed white babies up to two years of age. At this point, one can only imagine the level of stress that must have been encountered and the physical effects of prolonged breastfeeding on the women involved.
  5. As part of the slavery mentality, female slaves were also made to believe it was a privilege to have a white baby suckling on their breasts.
  6. Even after slavery ended, some black women continued to work as nannies for white families.