A Chicago couple is suing a hospital for negligence after the new mom was handed the wrong newborn to nurse.
According to an article in the Chicago Sun Times, Jennifer Spiegel was awakened by an Evanston Hospital staff member at about 4 a.m. the day after she delivered her son. A hungry baby boy was brought in, and Spiegel started breastfeeding him.
Soon after, a nurse walked in and told her that it wasn't her baby. "She said, 'The baby you're feeding isn't yours,' " Spiegel, 33, told the Sun Times. "It was just an awful, internal feeling."
Awkward? Sure. Awful? Possibly. But worth suing over? I don't think so.
Breastfeeding someone else's baby used to be considered fairly normal. Wet nurses were popular in Europe, especially in France, where infants were often sent to the countryside to be breastfed by peasant women, and in England, where aristocrats hired professional wet nurses. In Germany, people complained that wet nursing was too popular -- they felt that encouraged immorality among the poor. In the United States, black slaves were routinely forced to nurse their white owner's babies instead of their own. In 19th-century Brazil, people could purchase or rent slave women to act as wet nurses through ads placed in the local paper ("In the street behind Rua do Hospicio No. 27 we have for sale or for rent a black woman of the Mina nation with a six-day-old child, with very good milk and healthy..." reads one ad from a 1827 edition of Jornal do Comercio).
During a good will trip to Sierra Leone last year, actress Salma Hayek publicly nursed a baby boy who had been born on the same day as her daughter; she said it was an effort to reduce the stigma on breastfeeding in that country. (Sierra Leone has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world, partially due to malnutrition; it is traditionally believed there that women who are breastfeeding should not engage in sexual intercourse, and so some women are pressured by their husbands to limit or avoid breastfeeding their children.)
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention discourage women from nursing other people's children, as does the La Leche League; certain diseases, like HIV, syphilis, and hepatitis can be transmitted via breast milk. But what if the mothers are healthy? Is there ever a circumstance where it could be warranted?
Last year, a group of moms in Michigan banded together to cross-nurse a newborn whose mother had died minutes after his birth. The father, Robbie Goodrich, knew that his wife would have wanted baby Moses to be breastfed, and so when a family friend offered to feed Moses along with her 1-year-old, Goodrich accepted. Six months later, Moses was still being breastfed (in all, about 25 women took turns feeding the child). According to the post at Ecochildsplay.com, most of the women said that they "never even considered wet nursing before, but they wanted to give a baby something he was missing."
There's little fuss over babies who are given breast milk that had been donated to a milk bank -- even hospitals bank breast milk for premature or sick infants -- which seems to indicate that the issue isn't about milk vs. formula, but bottle vs. (another mother's) breast. Is it the fact that our society still views breasts as sexual objects? Or is it about relationships -- would it more acceptable to nurse your niece or nephew instead of a stranger's child?
Sorry, Dads, this one is for the female readers out there (though feel free to weigh in, if you like): Would you breastfeed someone else's baby?
Lylah M. Alphonse is a Globe staff member and mom and stepmom to five kids. She writes about juggling career and parenthood at The 36-Hour Day and blogs at Write. Edit. Repeat. E-mail her at email@example.com.