Introduction | A Woman's Power | Breastfeeding  | The Mother's Duty | The "Dangerously Good" Mother | The "Naturally Bad" Mother

Romantic Era Ideas on the Importance of Breastfeeding

Mother Awoken by Her Crying Child. Romantic era mothers were encouraged to nurse their own children rather than employing the services of a wet nurse. Nursing one's own child strengthened the mother-child bond and promoted the health of both mother and baby.
Employing wet nurses was a relatively common practice among the upper and middle classes during the Romantic era. William Roscoe's 1792 "The Nurse, A Poem" emphasized the infant's dependent state on a mother's nourishment and also expressed fears that employing a wet nurse would create misplaced affections in the child as well as transfer undesirable characteristics and disease through the breast milk of a wet nurse of questionable moral character.

Maria Edgeworth's Ennui also centers on fears about the dangers posed by wet nurses. In the novel, Ellinor, the Irish wet nurse for the child of an often-absent, upper-class mother is able to switch her own child for the son of an earl, and so poses a threat to the integrity of English class structures. Not all wet nurses, of course, were of such questionable moral character. For the working classes, wet nursing others' children was an advantageous way to use maternal resources to earn money and prevent pregnancy.

Romantic era physicians emphasized that breastfeeding was healthier for infants and increasingly encouraged mothers of all social classes to breastfeed their own children. Dr. William Smellie stressed in A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Midwifery, published in 1752, the benefits of nursing for the mother as well as the child, noting a reduced risk of death from "milk fever" in mothers who nursed their own children.

In Vindication of the Rights of Women, Mary Wollstonecraft indicted the mother who refused to nurse her own children as neglecting her duty: "Her parental affection, indeed, scarcely deserves the name, when it does not lead her to suckle her children, because the discharge of this duty is equally calculated to inspire maternal and filial affection". Breastfeeding was healthier for both the mother and the child; it also strengthened the mother-child bond and fostered a sense of loyalty to the home. As the home was foundational to the strength of the country, nursing one's children was a mother's patriotic duty.

Julia McLeod

Select Bibliography

Bryullov, Karl. Mother Awoken by Her Crying Child. 1831. Wikipaintings. Web. 14 March 2012.

Edgeworth, Maria. Ennui. New York: Garland, 1978. Print.

Kipp, Julie. Romanticism, Maternity, and the Body Politic. Cambridge: Cambridge U P, 2003. Print.

Perkin, Joan. Women and Marriage in Nineteenth-Century England. Chicago: Lyceum, 1989. Print.

Roscoe, William. "The Nurse, A Poem." London, 1798. Internet Archive. Web. 14 March 2012.

Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and A Vindication of the Rights of Man. Oxford: Oxford
     UP, 2008. Print.