Health: Breastfeeding other women's babies

After an exhausting 40-hour labour, Nathalie Brooks was delighted when she gave birth to a beautiful baby girl. "When Meadow was first handed to me it was very emotional," Nathalie said in an article in yesterday's Sun. "It was the most incredible thing when Meadow started breastfeeding."

Nathalie fed her for about four hours on the first day, then had a sleep. A couple of hours later, she was woken by a nurse who told her that her baby was crying and needed a feed. She was handed the baby, who suckled contentedly for 20 minutes - until a distraught Brooks realised that the child was not hers.

Are you shocked? Horrified? Disgusted? Brooks was. "These were meant to be the most wonderful moments of my life and they have been ruined," she said. "I feel anger that the milk my body produced for my baby has been given to another, and guilt that my little girl has missed out on it. And I feel horrified that I've had this intimate experience with another mother's child."

The story, splashed on the front page, with a further two-page spread inside, was accompanied by pictures of baby Meadow snuggling up to her mother's breasts. The Sun, which - as we know - likes breasts, described the unfortunate incident as "a new NHS scandal", which "comes just two weeks after the Sun revealed how a 71-year-old gran dying of cancer was raped in a London hospital toilet".

While it must be shocking to find that the baby clamped to your nipple is not your own, it is hardly of the same order of gravity as the rape of a cancer patient in a hospital loo. But why do we feel so squeamish about the idea of breastfeeding another woman's baby, or someone else breastfeeding our own, when until the late 19th century it was commonplace throughout Europe, either through the employment of wet nurses or through more informal arrangements?

Mill workers, for example, used to breastfeed each other's babies while working shifts; prostitutes often acted as wet nurses because of the contraceptive benefits of breastfeeding; babies from wealthy London families were frequently sent away for feeding to healthier climes in the country, and by the end of the 18th century wet nurses were moving into the family homes of the wealthy at the same rate as au pairs and nannies today.

That squeamishness is, of course, partly to do with the way society, aided by the Sun, views breasts nowadays, less as a food source for infants than as sexual objects - which might also be why a law is being introduced in Scotland giving women the right to breastfeed in public, rather than having to hide themselves away in toilets.

This is what Dr Yehudi Gordon - Emma Thompson's favourite childcare guru, has to say about breastfeeding. "Breastfeeding is the ideal way to feed your baby from birth, and for as long as suits you both... it is a perfect and natural source of nutrition and brings you together in the most intimate way possible.

"The first taste your baby gets from your breasts is colostrum containing sugar and protein for energy, plus protective antibodies and hormones to stimulate digestion. It usually looks clear yellow. In two or three days, rich and creamy transitional milk flows before the mature milk gradually comes in - this has a white or bluey-white fore-milk and thicker hind-milk that completes the feed."

So does it really matter whose milk a baby drinks? No, not according to baby and childcare expert Penelope Leach. "Colostrum is colostrum is colostrum," she says. In countries where there is a high rate of HIV infection it might be an issue, but the big difference here would have been if the baby was bottlefed formula milk, which is far inferior to breast milk. What about that crucial early bonding? Is it likely to have been damaged? "There's more to bonding than an early feed after delivery," says Leach.

Wet nursing as a commercial arrangement may have disappeared in the west, but according to a publication entitled Wet Nursing in the Modern World, there is evidence in the UK, US and Australia of a return of unpaid casual wet nursing among friends. Wet nursing probably never went away, but it has apparently been renamed "cross nursing", to "dissociate it form the negative connotations of the word 'wet nursing' ".

Tina Webb, 37, has breastfed her four daughters. She has also occasionally breastfed two of her friends' children to help them out, and has provided breast milk for probably dozens of other infants through donations to a local hospital milk bank, which provides breast milk for babies in their special baby care unit.

"It's a big taboo subject probably because it's an exchange of bodily fluids," she says. "It's a slightly funny feeling breastfeeding another woman's baby. You don't realise till you do it that your baby has its own very distinctive suck, and another baby feels quite different. But I'm really pleased that I've been able to make a difference.

"In the past, for generation after generation, it was seen as helping another mother out, and at times it could be the difference between a child dying or living. It's sad that something which, for hundreds of years, has been a way of women helping each other, we now see as disgusting or terrible."

However, it is something quite different if you suddenly find you're feeding someone else's child when you thought you were feeding your own, says Rosie Dodds, policy research officer for the National Childbirth Trust.

"I understand why this woman is so upset. If she feels very shocked that somebody else's baby was given her, it might upset her own emotional reaction to the baby. It's a very personal thing. Maybe we are too hung up about breastfeeding in this country, which is why the rates are so low."

In the first few days after giving birth, 70% of women breastfeed their children, but the number declines rapidly, with more than a third stopping in the first six weeks. Why do they stop? Cracked nipples, discomfort, insufficient milk, inconvenience, lack of support, embarrassment...

Which may well be a case for bringing back the wet nurse, or rather the cross nurse. Better a cross nurse than a cross mum?

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