19/10/2016 12:04 BST | Updated 19/10/2017 06:12 BST

Should Women Breastfeed Each Other's Babies?

In 1655, the medical author Thomas Moffett explained that all 'kind and natural' women would breastfeed. 'Yea', he noted, 'all Women which truly loved their Children' did so. The alternative to breastfeeding for new mothers in the 1600s in England was to hire a wet nurse -- a woman that had recently given birth and was still lactating.

For medical and religious authorities alike, employing another woman to feed one's infant was seen as shirking a godly duty and a symptom of lukewarm maternal affection. As Jane Sharp, author of a 1671 midwifery text sneered, women that hired a wet nurse had as much 'love for their own, as Dumb creatures.'

Breast milk was thought to carry the physical and emotional characteristics of its source. Moffett, for instance, explained to new mothers that babies could 'draw ill Qualities from their Nurses both of Body and Mind', a concern echoing ancient guidance about choosing a midwife and reflecting social concerns about entrusting the care of an infant to a woman of more humble origins than her employers. Across the social spectrum in early modern England medical and moral authors considered a mother's milk the most beneficial for infant health.

Just as seventeenth-century authors were adamant about the advantages of mothers breastfeeding, so modern debates stress the medical, moral and emotional imperatives for breastfeeding. Current medical recommendations propose that mothers should breastfeed exclusively for the first six months of a baby's life. A recent study in the Lancet suggested that breastfeeding exclusively could prevent 800,000 child deaths per year, and stop an additional 22,000 deaths annually from breast cancer. One Brazilian study concluded that babies that had been breastfed had higher IQs, spent longer in school and earned more than those who had not.

But there are numerous reasons why women might be unable to breastfeed, something the current dialogue often neglects to consider. Currently the alternative, if access to a milk banking service is unavailable, is formula. In early modern England when new mothers were unable to breastfeed, they sometimes avoided the dangers of hiring an unknown nurse that lived far from the household by soliciting former servants and friends to carry out the task; a more informal arrangement that did not necessarily involve money.

A case in point is recorded in the diary of the Yorkshire gentlewoman Alice Thornton. In 1655 she became ill and her milk disappeared. Dafeny Lightfoot, a family friend and former servant, fed the newborn in Alice's stead for three months. Similarly, when the clergyman Ralph Josselin and his wife had to leave their children in Earls Colne, Essex, he asked his 'former servant' Lydia to breastfeed his youngest child. The lawyer, Robert Woodford, also asked Mrs Rushworth, a former servant to feed two-month old John when his wife was troubled with sore and inflamed breasts. Even medical authors allowed for this practice as a more desirable alternative to sending a child away to nurse: Jane Sharp noted that some women were so blessed as to have enough breast milk to 'suckle a child of their own, and another for a friend.'

Such examples show that social and cultural factors condition parenting expectations and norms -- wet nursing and breastfeeding have ebbed and flowed in popularity. More recently, private milk sharing has become a visible alternative for parents wishing to avoid formula. Such arrangements are facilitated by the internet and social media, but are not without their critics. On 26 October five experts -- two historians, a geographer, a sociologist and a milk banking consultant -- will join together to debate whether or not women should be feeding each other's babies as part of the Cambridge Festival of Ideas.

There is no charge for this event but booking is required: