Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

A history of breastfeeding and wet nurses

Nursan Cinar
Sumeyra Topal
Sinem Yalnizoglu Caka
Sakarya, Turkey

The bond established with the milk never breaks off even if years passed. Wet nurse’s own son (at left) and milk son. Photo by Sümeyra Topal.

Breastfeeding has been vital to life since the beginning of humanity. For infants who are unable to get this unique nutrition from their own mothers, wet nursing practices have been accepted since ancient times. The concept of wet nursing was evident in the clay tablets of  the Hammurabi Laws. As stated on these tablets, if a wet nurse was proven to hide a child’s death from his family and fed another child, the woman’s breasts were cut off.1 Information about wet nurses in Antiquity existed even on tombstones. Tiberius’ granddaughter, Julia Livilla, was portrayed being fed by a wet nurse named Prima on her gravestone.2 Wet nursing practices were mentioned and regulated in various religions. In the Torah and in the Book of Exodus in the Bible, it is written that Moses was saved by milk from a wet nurse in Pharaoh’s palace. An ancient papyrus also mentions a slave being given charge of a baby for breastfeeding.2

There are verses related to the law of wet nursing and milk siblings in the Bakara 223 and Nisa 23 verses of the Qur’an. If a child sucked a woman’s milk other than his or her mother, the woman was accepted as a wet nurse of the child.3 Wet nurses also existed in the history of the Arab culture. It is known that Hz. Halime, Hz. Süveybe, and Ümmü Eyman were wet nurses to Prophet Muhammad as an infant.2,3 Hz. Muhammad always showed deserved respect to Halime and his milk brothers Abdullah, Umayye, and Judame (Seyma) in the Tribe of Sad.3,4

In Turkish mythology, the Epic of Oguz Kagan gave great importance to breast milk. Oguz Kagan drank breast milk only once after birth then began eating meat and other foods like the big boys, his babyhood passing quickly. Breast milk has also left a deep impression on the tongues of the Turks with commonly used idioms and proverbs such as, “Let the my milk be halal to you,” “I do not make halal to my milk,” and “His or her milk is bad.” In Ottoman history, the sultans’ wet nurses were carefully chosen, especially paid attention to these women are being noble and religious women. Since breast milk was thought to have a big effect on the character of the child, care was taken to ensure that the people who would govern the state would be strong in character, beginning with halal and clean milk. Many stories of Ottoman sultans exist, such as that of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent and Yahya Efendi from Beşiktaş, who were milk siblings. Yahya Efendi was able to criticize decisions made by the Sultan because of the power given by milk brotherhood. Afife Hatun was the wet nurse of Sultan Süleyman and he showed her great respect.5

Through wet nursing, warm relationships were formed and social solidarity was increased between rich and poor families. In Anatolia, mothers interpreted pain in their breasts as a sign that their children were hungry or uneasy. In fact, mothers who had just lost their babies relieved their sorrows by giving milk to children of their neighbors or relatives. They interpreted their pain as being God’s discretion and alleviated it by feeding others in place of their lost child.

In Anatolian culture, breast milk is very valuable. When newborns meet with mothers for the first time, as soon as they canoodle their babies they begin to feed them with the name of God and prayers. This first touch relaxes the mother and baby. Mothers who do not do this in some way fall into difficulty. If a first-time mother does not breastfeed her baby, it is believed that the baby’s milk will be absorbed by demons and fairies. According to widespread belief, if these mothers were frightened by the demons, the baby would be disturbed as well.

In the Middle Ages, wet nursing became widely used. The importance of breastfeeding was emphasized in beliefs such as: “Hz. Mary’s milk is the most sacred and miraculous fluid after Jesus’ blood.” This belief was the subject of later artwork and portraits.2 Beginning in the thirteenth century, wet nursing was the best paying profession for women in Europe. During this period, wet nurses were often brought to the home of the child who was to be breastfed. In later centuries, milk mothers were allowed to stay in the same house with the baby. Feeding a child was described as an event beyond simple breastfeeding, and it was believed that the breastfeeding person passed an entire religious-moral belief system to the child.2

At the beginning of the twentieth century, some important people took active roles in support of breastfeeding, during a time when bottle-feeding practices with commercial formula became popular. The most important of these was the German Empress Auguste Victoria, who described the benefits of breastfeeding to the public.2 Some countries that understood the importance of breast milk established breast milk banks in order to provide fresh breast milk to children who were born prematurely or could not take breast milk for various reasons. The first milk bank was opened in Vienna in 1909. In the period between the two world wars, a program sponsored by the French government began an initiative to provide breast milk to children who needed it as a “medication.” Women who wanted to donate placed their milk in collection centers in the Baudelocque birth clinic in Paris.

Since the earliest periods of history, wet nursing has been found in many cultures and religions. In the mythology of Ancient Egypt and Turkey, findings related to breast milk, wet nursing, and milk siblings were recorded. In the Middle Ages, wet nursing was one of the professions that provided a good income, especially in Europe and Arabia. During the Renaissance, wealthy families commissioned wet nurses to breastfeed their children as a social status indicator. In the Turkish and Islamic cultures, wet nursing and milk siblings are recognized by religious rules, and the connections between children and their milk families are given necessary care and attention. Breast milk has proven to be a precious potion for babies even today. Practices to promote breastfeeding should be encouraged and supported.


  1. Yurdakök M. Doğa ve İnsan Tarihinde Anne Sütü. İstanbul: Wyeth İlaçları A.Ş. Bilimsel Yayınları:1, 1996. p. 53-66.
  2. Esin Çeber, Eren Alçicek, Anne Sütü ve Sütannelik. Egetan Basımevi, 2011.p.84-103
  3. Ansiklopedisi, İ. Türkiye Diyanet Vakfı, 1988. Cilt 15.p.338-339
  4. İshak Emin Aktepe, “Sâlim hadisinin süt akrabalığı bağlamında tahlil ve tenkidi,” İslam Hukuku Araştırmaları Dergisi, no 14 (2009): 251-266.
  5. Uluçay Ç. Harem II. Ankara: Türk Tarih Kurumu Basımevi; 1971. p. 138-40.

NURSAN CINAR, PhD, is a professor at Sakarya University School of Health Sciences. Her research focuses on pediatric nursing, health promotion, breastfeeding, nurse education, environmental risk and health affect.

SUMEYRA TOPAL is a PhD student and works as a research assistant at Sakarya University School of Health Sciences. Her research interests include nursing, maternal, newborn and child health.

SINEM YALNIZOGLU CAKA is a PhD student and works as a research assistant at Sakarya University School of Health Sciences. Her research interests include nursing, maternal, newborn and child health.

Highlighted in Frontispiece Volume 10, Issue 4 – Fall 2018

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