Estimated reading time: 20 minute(s)
by Fudia Muhammad
Just a few decades ago, couples who struggled with infertility did not have many options available for them. Today, the advances in science and medicine allow couples who cannot conceive on their own, due to medical or physical reasons, to go on to have healthy children and build wonderful families. There are always moral and ethical dilemmas to wrangle with, particularly if considering surrogacy; but nonetheless, this is one of the many options available. There are different types of surrogacies; but in all instances a third party is brought into the picture for the purpose of physically carrying the baby to term. Usually, the female partner is either unable or unwilling to carry the baby. The surrogate mother’s medical expenses are all paid for by the couple – and unless she is a relative or close friend who is availing herself for purely altruistic reasons, the surrogate is generously compensated beyond her medical expenses.
In many respects, a wet nurse is similar to a surrogate mother – she is a third party that is brought into the picture to fulfill a role that the natural mother is either unable or unwilling to do and she is compensated for her service. However, instead of carrying the baby in her womb, the role of a wet nurse is to “nurse” or breastfeed another woman’s baby. Today, in addition to the term wet nurse, many refer to this as “cross-nursing” or “shared-nursing.”
It is intriguing that many of us, particularly in the United States, have come to accept surrogacy (another woman giving birth to a couple’s baby) as an acceptable solution to infertility, but find another woman nursing a couple’s baby as weird or even disgusting. This is odd since surrogacy is relatively new, but wet nurses have been used for centuries.
Occasionally in the Bible, the term “nurse” is used, but its use is not referring to a medical nurse by today’s definition; the nurses were those who breastfed babies that were not their own. We may recall that according to the scriptures, when Pharaoh’s daughter found Moses, she sent for a woman to nurse him and paid her wages for the service. Of course, unbeknownst to her, the woman she paid to nurse Moses was his biological mother. Likewise, the Holy Qur’an states – if a couple so chooses, they may engage a wet nurse for their baby, “…so long as you pay what you promised according to usage” (2: 233).
To be clear, there is no longer any debate about the tremendous health benefits and advantages of breastfeeding for both the mother and the baby, so EVERY able mother should make it a priority to breastfeed her own baby. But for those who cannot breastfeed or simply choose not to, why should man-made manufactured formula be the next option when there is a much healthier alternative for our babies? We all spend money on the things that are important to us. For many of us, when it comes to something we deem beneficial for our children, we will FIND the money – education, private lessons, sports, travel, braces, entertainment; you name it. So, what about nutrition and health?
In How to Eat to Live: Book Two, the Most Honorable Elijah Muhammad wrote, “A SICK mother’s milk is better for her baby than a healthy cow’s milk or any animal’s milk.” This does not mean that we should not consider the health and lifestyle of the woman when choosing a wet nurse for our baby – we absolutely should. But it does highlight the infinite value and profound superiority of breastmilk; after all, it was designed by God Himself.
We may ask: Is hiring a wet nurse practical in 2018? Believe it or not, there are professional wet nurses and they are not hard to find. Costs vary, but it is a great investment in the health of your baby. Ideally, you should choose someone you know personally. There was a time when it was very common in the mosque or church to see a sister nursing another sister’s baby. All mothers know that when you are lactating, if you hear another baby cry, your milk will involuntarily letdown – perhaps that’s a sign (smile). I have also witnessed (not in this country) a woman who was not lactating put another woman’s crying baby on her breast to soothe and console the baby until the mother returned. There was no milk coming out, but just like a pacifier, the baby was content and comforted in that moment.
As Black people in America, when we think of wet nurses, the image that often races to the forefront of our consciousness is that of the “mammy” figure during slavery – our Black mothers being forced to nurse and be the primary caretakers of the slave master’s children. The fact that we were forced to nurture, nourish, comfort and strengthen our future tormentors is reprehensible. At that time, some wet nurses only saw their biological children once every two weeks if at all, since she had to be at the behest of the mistress who was inept to care for her own children. If we were paid anything at all, it was inadequate and we had no rights and no recourse. Some argue that the trauma experienced from someone owning our bodies and dictating how it should be used has been passed down through the generations – “post-traumatic slave syndrome.” The effect is that today, many Black women do not choose to breastfeed their own children much less someone else’s.
It was primarily Black women who were aghast when images and video surfaced of actress, Salma Hayek, breastfeeding a Black woman’s baby in Sierra Leone in 2009. I was not there, so cannot speak to the context and circumstances surrounding her decision; but according to what was reported, the baby was hungry and the mother could not provide milk, so Hayek instinctively went to nurse the baby. Salma Hayek is of Mexican descent and shared that her own great-grandmother did something similar to help a woman and her baby in a Mexican village decades prior. We do not know Mrs. Hayek personally; but we should be able to appreciate her intentions as well as the fact that she had no aversions toward nursing someone else’s baby.
Breastmilk is life. It is a living substance that not only provides food but also medicine for the baby. Studies show that “baby saliva stimulates immune response.” This means that if a baby is ill, the mother’s milk can provide the cure. Scientists say that the retrograde milk flow (backwash) sends pathogens to the mother triggering an immune response in her, which she returns to the baby in the form of a healing remedy. Babies are completely dependent on the mother’s immune system, while they strengthen their own. This does not work with adult saliva, but the same results are found if the nursing woman is not the biological mother. Would you believe that the saliva from another baby can trigger the nursing mother’s brain to produce a different chemical combination in her milk better suited for that specific baby? Wow!
Allah (God) is The Master Scientist and has provided everything that we need to get the most out of this life. The fact is that breastmilk from almost any woman is several times better for our baby than anything manufactured in a factory or anything we can get from the cleanest plant or animal. Somehow, over time, breastfeeding has become undesirable and using a wet nurse, unthinkable. This may not be feasible for every mother, but thankfully a slow and steady resurgence of wet nurses is taking place; providing a healthier and better alternative for the mother who desires to give her baby nature’s best.
(Sister Fudia Muhammad is a member of Muhammad Mosque No. 64 in Austin, Texas. She is married to Student Minister Robert L. Muhammad and they have been blessed with four children. Sister Fudia holds a Master’s degree in Education – she is a writer, an educator and an advocate for God-centered child-rearing.)