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Baby Feeding Terms That Need to Retire

This Blog Post is part 1 of three. 

You can read post 2, the term breastfeeding here

You can read post 3, the term chestfeeding here

This series of blog post aren't like anything you’ve read before. They're going to have definitions, history, and are going to be thought provoking. And I’m going to push some buttons. I’m going to ask questions, and I’m not going to answer them for you. This is a sensitive subject. You might get triggered. You might get emotional. And that’s ok. Your feelings are valid, but how you choose to express those feelings, and the language you use might not be. Comments will be screened.

image source

Let’s get started.

From the moment you announce your pregnant, there’s a lot of talk about how you “should” feed your baby. Whether that’s breastfeeding, bottle-feeding, pumping, formula — or some combination of these, everyone has an opinion. Feeding is a heated topic with a lot of conflict, and so’s the language we use to talk about feeding.

If you haven’t had to choose how to label your feeding approach, chestfeeding/breastfeeding/nursing/feeding might seem like just words, but that’s a privilege not everyone shares.

There’s a lot to unpack here. Let’s start by looking at some definitions and their origins. I’ve decided to tackle these in historical order. Think of this as the timeline for the vocabulary society has used to label feeding. We are going to start with the term Nursing.

Wet nursing is still practiced today. Jessica Anne Colletti (above) is feeding her child and a close friends child. You can read more about their arrangement and how it broke the internet here

Nursing (dry & wet nursing)

The terms nurse and nursing have a long history. The first written account goes back to the 13th century (1200s).  It originates from the Latin word nutire, which means to suckle. (Source)

The term “nurse” has evolved overtime to describe a wet nurse, then the caretaker of children (dry nurse), later became caretaker of the sick (16th century), and finally a healthcare professional (actually entomologists now use the term to describe asexual bees).

According to JANE K. DICKINSON, nurse is a term where “the traces of ideologies of gender identity and gendered work appear to be retained.” (SOURCE) In other words, when you hear the term nurse or nursing, you think of women. It’s a word loaded with gender stereotypes.

Nursing has been in use much longer than breastfeeding to describe the act of feeding a baby from one’s body. Unfortunately the history of nursing isn't from a mothers perspective. Remember most of history is written by old white men, so we don’t have the perspective of mothers from back them.

“Although it [nursing] is a topic that is present in different treatises by philosophers, doctors and historians, the female view of it is almost completely lacking. References about breastfeeding are frequent, but indirect and with little information on practices. Thus, the most studied topic is that of wet-nurses.”  SOURCE Women are underrepresented in the history of childcare, the figure that comes up the most in our recorded history is the wet nurse. 

Black female slaves were used as wet nurses. They weren't asked they were told.

Remember, bottles & breast pumps are a more recent invention. Historically, if a baby wasn’t fed from a breast, it would die. You’ve heard the saying it takes a village to raise a child. Well sometimes a lactating person in that village would have to step up and feed someone else’s baby, and that woman was called a wet nurse. The use of wet nurses evolved over time from that of necessity, to a paid position in affluent households. Female salves were also forced into being wet nurses. Before the natural sciences movement of the 18th century, nursing was seen as common; too common to be done by royalty and wealthy people.

A wet nurse is defined as a woman who breastfeeds another's child. The use of wet nurses was a common practice before the introduction of the bottle and formula, and continued into the 20th century. Wet nursing was a visible occupation until the 1920s in the United States (here).

Before the natural sciences movement of the 18th century, 
nursing was seen as common; too common to be done by royalty an wealthy people


Wet nursing has a long history of abuse and exploitation of black slaves and poor women. "The problem with wet nursing is, it’s a very exploitative custom, historically,” Jacqueline Wolf, a professor in the department of social medicine at Ohio University. In the 20th century, the women who worked as wet nurses were desperate. “They were almost exclusively single women who had been abandoned by their families because of the shame of being single mothers, or women who were widowed and homeless.” Wolf said.  Being a wet nurse was a job filled with abuse, and these women had no rights. Some of the language used to describe wet nurses; “inherently immoral”,“terrible burden” on the families that sheltered them, ‘three quarters cow and one quarter devil.’ If this was the language used on free poor women, imagine the abuse slave women endured. 

Wet nursing was a form of forced labor for Black and afro descended enslaved women. These women were forced to serve as wet nurses for their masters’ wives. This was another form of labor imposed on them. Being a wet nurse could only be forced on lactating women who had borne their own children. This begs the question, what happened to the wet nurses baby? was she allowed to feed it? How many lost their babies because they were forced to feed their masters children?

Two infant's feeding bottles from the Science Museum. Left: Glass, Europe 1801–1900. Right: Ceramic, England 1801–91. Ceramic Courtesy of the Wellcome Collection, on the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) licence.

Now there's people trying to bring back the term"nursing" to refer to the caregiver role of a mother and removing breastfeeding from it altogether. Instead of Nursing being used to refer to the act of feeding, It's seen as incorporating the entire bonding experience of the feeding process.  If you’d like to read more about this, Dr. Linda Palmer has an article about it.


Before writing this, I thought the term Nursing was antiquated when it described feeding a baby. COVID made me feel strongly that the term nursing should be reserved for the people in the healthcare profession. And I still feel that way. It’s a gendered term assigned to women and it can stay in the past. I’ve learned there’s a movement that’s trying to evolve the term nursing to refer to the act of bonding and care that takes place during a feed. In that case, the term nursing could be used for the intimacy a bottle-feeding parent experiences when feeding their infant.

I don’t think we need this word in the realm of parenthood. The world has evolved, language has evolved (urban dictionary), it’s time to leave the feeding part of the term “nursing” in the past.

What do you think?

Should the word nursing stay in our vocabulary to describe people who feed babies from their bodies? 

Is it sexist to keep using? 

Should we leave this word for healthcare professionals world-wide?

Are you attached to this word?

Any private messages sent to me on this subject will be published publicly with your name. So please ensure the language you use with me in private is language you're comfortable having in the public forum. 

Part two will be available the week of February 19th, and we're going to talk about the word Breastfeeding.

Read more on Wet nursing



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