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Feeding someone else’s baby is not new or distasteful, so bonne chance to the Parisian mother advertising her services

It wasn’t an ad the website had expected to see posted: a 29-year-old nurse offering to breastfeed a baby, for €100 a day. But they checked her out and the ad was legitimate: the woman, obviously the mother of a young baby herself, had identified a gap in the market for male gay couples who have fathered children by adoption or via a surrogate, and are looking for a healthier alternative to bottlefeeding.

So far, so 2013; and so too is the reaction. First, the health issues: you can’t do that, shout the doubters, just as they did a few weeks ago when actor Alicia Silverstone suggested an altruistic milk bank to bring together mothers with abundant milk, and mothers finding feeding difficult. Second, the yuck factor: isn’t it just beyond tasteful (no pun intended) for a woman to put her nipple into another woman’s baby’s mouth?

Well, there’s nothing new about women feeding other women’s babies. It’s called wet nursing, although with a name like that you can see why it needs a makeover; and it’s basically as old as time. Through history, mothers who were unable to breastfeed or who chose not to do it (typically wealthy/high status women) would outsource it to other new mothers. Nature gave us two breasts apiece, after all, so we’re clearly equipped to feed at least two babies and most births are to singletons.

So really, what’s not to like? In my long breastfeeding career (I fed four babies to the age of three, a total of 13 years in all) I often donated to a milk bank (breastmilk is molten gold for premature babies, and the mothers aren’t always able to feed). I also milk-shared for a friend’s baby when he was having open-heart surgery and my friend was finding feeding difficult. And I once “swapped” babies with my best friend, which was interesting. Her son’s latch felt very different to my daughter’s; in some ways it felt a bit like taking a new lover, since breastfeeding is such an intimate activity; but the babies certainly didn’t seem to mind. From their point of view, another woman’s milk-filled breast, though definitely different from the one they were used to, is a lot less strange than a bottle would be. And certainly sucking from another mother’s nipple wouldn’t be as odd to a breastfed child as sucking from a plastic teat, which involves a very different oral technique (that’s what “nipple confusion” is all about).

I suspect my breastfeeding experiences sound a bit odd to some people, though I’m certainly not the only long-term breastfeeder in the world and across history I’m pretty bog-standard. What’s different in our culture is that most women breastfeed one or two babies for just a few months each, rather than a handful of babies through toddlerhood; which in my view is a shame, because long-term breastfeeding can be a wonderful thing and I’m sure more mothers and their babies could benefit from it. And a culture where long-term breastfeeding is normal is a culture that’s confident about and comfortable with breastfeeding, whereas our culture is sadly neither of these things.

Feeding someone else’s baby sounds no big deal to me, and if we hadn’t made breastfeeding such an oddity, I doubt we’d be balking at one Parisan mother’s imaginative and generous-spirited idea. © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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