More Moms Help Moms Through Cross-Nursing

Researchers find the practice of breastfeeding someone else's baby—known as cross-nursing, not wet-nursing—is trendy. Surprising thing? It's not all about nutrition.

More Moms Help Moms Through Cross-Nursing wong sze yuen/Shutterstock

When Susan Goodrich died of a rare amniotic fluid embolism shortly after giving birth in 2009, a community of women in her home state of Michigan stepped up to take on the task of nursing her son.

"Ever since I became a mother, I've felt a connection with other mothers," Kyra Fillmore told CNN of why she—along with 20 other women—opted to breastfeed the baby of a woman she'd never met. "I was nervous. It was very emotional. I didn't know what to expect. But I felt like I needed to do this for Susan, even though I didn't know her."

Sound like a rare occurrence? It's not.

Though it's not a practice shared by millions, cross-nursing—or the practice of directly feeding someone else's baby, often mistakenly referred to as wet-nursing—is growing among high-income, highly educated white women, according to a new study from researchers at the University of Central Florida.

The benefits of cross-nursing

In the study, researchers collected surveys from 392 women who participate in breastfeeding communities both locally in Central Florida and online through social media. The majority of women who responded had an income over $70,000, had been sharing milk since 2010 and use the internet to facilitate their milk exchanges.

The reason they do it is simple: research shows that breast milk has tangible benefits for children, including increased resistance to diseases like juvenile diabetes and multiple sclerosis both early and later in life. Sharing gives women who aren't (for whatever reason) able to produce enough of their own milk a chance to give their babies the same benefits.

While the practice of buying, selling and sharing breast milk both online and off is becoming the norm with services like Only the Breast, Eats on Feets and Human Milk 4 Human Babies, "The idea that women are buying milk from strangers over the Internet and having it shipped through the mail was not supported by our study," Shannon K. Carter, assistant professor of sociology and co-author, said.

And that's probably a good thing. Researchers from The Ohio State University and Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center tested 102 samples of breast milk purchased from sharing websites and found "fairly high concentrations of cow's milk." Cross-nursing takes some of the unknowns out of getting breast milk from somewhere other than a mother's own breast.

"Many women who are educated tend to really go to great lengths to educate themselves about parenting," Beatriz Reyes-Foster, PhD, study co-author and sociocultural anthropologist at UCF, tells of part of the reason why educated women are foregoing milk banks in favor of cross-nursing.

"They tend to be really well-informed about the benefits of breast milk and somewhat suspicious of chemicals and GMOs in regular formula," she says.

Moms helping moms

Most interesting, with cross-nursing, the researchers found the emphasis wasn't only about providing nutrition for their infants, it's also for the social outlet. Many cross-nursing groups are formed via community networks, like through a doula or midwife, or they know someone in their community who can connect them, says Dr. Reyes-Foster. There's also widespread use of social networking where women meet on local breastfeeding support groups and then meet up in person on a regular basis.

While Dr. Reyes-Foster says more research is needed to know whether or not cross-nursing will become a real trend, its increased visibility online shows that more women are looking for connections with other mothers on a personal level.

"The fact that women are participating in cross-nursing each other's children shows that they are interested not just in feeding, but in building a community," she says.