The Mommy Wars and Breast Milk

Last month, we saw the revival of the “Mommy Wars” once again. Triggered by the publication of Leslie Bennetts’ book, The Feminine Mistake, major newspapers, magazines, and blogs debated Bennetts’ premise that mothers who leave the workplace to raise children, even temporarily, risk significant economic losses in the future. As commentators debated the pros and cons of women’s life choices, and the effects on their children, there was little discussion of an issue that may have a much greater impact on children—outsourcing of breast milk. Yes, you read it right the first time. Although women have always breastfed other women’s children, as Time magazine recently reported, only now is there a clear for-profit market in human breast milk in the United States.

Studies have shown that breast-fed babies enjoy numerous health benefits which infant formula simply cannot replicate. Clearly, breast milk is best but the question is “whose breast milk?” An infant might benefit most from his own mother’s milk, but there is evidence that another woman’s breast milk is preferable to infant formula. Some mothers are physically unable to provide their children with their own breast milk, while others choose not to because, according to Time, they have “high powered careers.” If the market for human breast milk continues to grow, this latter group (although small) might find itself in the center of the Mommy Wars.

Women who purchase human breast milk are generally wealthier than the women they employ to nurse their children. Although at a salary of $1,000 per week, wet nurses earn more than most nannies, and demand for their services is increasing, some people are uncomfortable with the class and racial implications of this line of work. Let’s not forget that during slavery, Black women often nursed their masters’ children.

However, as Professor Waldeck argued in her prescient article, Encouraging a Market in Human Milk, society has an interest in ensuring that as many children as possible receive human milk. While some women already donate breast milk (for free) to milk banks across the country, Professor Waldeck argues that the prospect of financial compensation is likely to motivate more women to donate, thereby providing greater numbers of children with the health benefits of breast milk.

What does all of this have to do with law? We first have to ask whether states should regulate a market in human breast milk, or more specifically, who can be a wet nurse? Which employment laws would apply? How much trust are we willing to place in the agencies that match wet nurses and families in the same way that they place nannies, chauffeurs, and personal chefs in private homes? Do the reasons why a woman hires a wet nurse matter? In the surrogacy context, commentators have suggested that women who are able to carry a child to term should not be allowed to contract with a surrogate for convenience. Should women have to similarly show that they cannot breast-feed before they are allowed to hire a wet nurse?

I don’t have any answers, only questions. I must admit that I am particularly uncomfortable with the potential exploitation of poor women who have few options. Then I think of the African-American woman Time interviewed who wet nursed ten infants over a seven year period to put her own two children through college. She stated that her job is “fulfilling” so I am hesitant to question her choices. Just as important, if the law prohibits women from selling their breast milk or wet nursing services, will the government help them find jobs that will enable them to provide their families with an adequate standard of living? Somehow, I doubt it.

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5 Responses

  1. The Time piece didn’t identify what sorts of women were outsourcing the nursing of their children. We can guess that the women are wealthy because of the exorbitant cost, but are they professional women or just wealthy women who don’t choose to nurse their children? At least from my own experience and that of my friends, I can tell you that it’s much easier for professional women to nurse after returning to work than for other types of female workers. I’ve always had an office with a door that locks, but not every woman does. I’ve known secretaries that have had to go to conference rooms to nurse. Nursing at work comes with hassles, but those hassles are fewer as you go up the income chain.

  2. Frank says:

    Here’s a query/worry to add to Angel’s. On the one hand, a thriving market in breast milk may seem to enhance the freedom of working moms to perform demanding jobs without having to take time out to breastfeed. On the other hand, once that option is available, pressure may build to take advantage of it. I.e., it may seem less acceptable to give “wanting to breastfeed” as a rationale for wanting to have a maternity leave.

    Of course, concerns like this apply just as much to, say, pumps as to outsourcing (see, e.g.,

    Christine raises an interesting question re the class dynamics here; perhaps it’s more a matter of helping the middle class than elite moms. My law firm in DC had day care in the basement of the building and I would hope other top-tier employers consider this type of innovation important to retention. As E.J. Graff has noted, the class dynamics of the “mommy wars” are often skewed by the social network of mainstream media reporters:

  3. Nate Oman says:

    I would not that it is harldy the Mommy Wars alone that get skewed by the social networks of mainstream media reporters…

  4. “What does all of this have to do with law? We first have to ask whether states should regulate a market in human breast milk, or more specifically, who can be a wet nurse?”

    What about a woman’s right to choose?


    “I must admit that I am particularly uncomfortable with the potential exploitation of poor women who have few options.”

    so you would consider reducing those few options by one?

    I know this posting was more questions than policy advocacy but let’s face it – the only market for this “service” is of other women…and I’m not comfortable working up concern for an issue that won’t primarily demonize conservative straight white males.

  5. proud breastfeeding mother says:

    i breast fed my own child and another child that came to this contry sick and alone.i was proud of my choice and would of continued doin it if i was able(developd postpartum and had to stop bc of my medicatin).i would do it in a heartbeat again and am ashamed that people are lookin down on those who do.i didnt do it for money,and it has nothing to do with slavery.Out of all that was wronge with slavery this isnt the biggest!!!!i would proudly nurse another baby no matter the race! better breast feed than prostituteing!thank u to all who nursed wether your own or others children.