‘Extended’ Breastfeeding in the Elizabethan Period

In the UK today, only 1% of babies are exclusively breastfed by the time they are six months old, as recommended by the World Health Organization. Even fewer infants are breastfed by their first birthday; extended breastfeeding, nursing beyond that age, is rarer still. Yet it was not always so. In Elizabethan times, children could be nursed until they were over two or even three years old, as Shakespeare illustrated in Romeo and Juliet:

On Lammas-eve at night shall she be fourteen;
That shall she, marry: I remember it well.
‘T is since the earthquake now eleven years;
And she was wean’d
, I never shall forget it,
Of all the days of the year, upon that day
Shakespeare. Romeo and Juliet. Act I, Scene 3

This scene highlights the love Juliet’s nurse felt for the girl. Wet nurses could develop strong bonds with their charges, although their role was often contested. Juliet was three years old when she was weaned by the nurse, who had to use wormwood on her nipples to stop her body from producing milk. Shakespeare often mentioned herbs like these in his plays, as most of his contemporaries would be familiar with them.

For I had then laid wormwood to my dug,
Sitting in the sun under the dove-house wall;
My lord and you were then at Mantua –
Nay, I do bear a brain – but, as I said,
When it did taste the wormwood on the nipple
Of my dug and felt it bitter, pretty fool,
To see it tetchy and fall out with the dug!
Shakespeare. Romeo and Juliet. Act I, Scene 3

From what medical writers tell us, babies were usually breastfed for longer in continental Europe than in Britain; keep in mind that Romeo and Juliet is set in Verona. Still, an English person watching the play in a London playhouse wouldn’t have found Juliet’s weaning age unusual. Most 16th and 17th century medical writers, such as Jacques Guillemeau and Jane Sharp, would have advised that infants should nurse for around two years. But why was that?

Breast milk was believed to have powerful medical properties as a remedy, but it was also considered the best nourishment for young children, as it would make them strong and healthy, and transmit love and security. Not too different from the advice new parents receive today!

In the early modern period, it was thought that when someone became pregnant, they would stop menstruating because the blood would feed the infant in the womb. After birth, the same blood would travel upwards in the body, being concocted (literally cooked) and turned into breast milk, to keep on nourishing the baby. This understanding of the human body was deeply embedded in the humoral theory: Guillemeau described breast milk as ‘nothing else but blood whitened’.

According to the midwife Jane Sharp, babies should feed as often and as much as they liked in their first months – what we today call feeding ‘on demand’. As for weaning, she recommended her readers to wait until most of the baby’s teeth had appeared, especially the eye-teeth (canines), which usually come in when babies are between 16 and 20 months old. This meant that the child was ready for solid foods – though usually, a transition phase preceded more robust foods like meats, starting roughly around 8 months old. For Sharp, weaning shouldn’t be abrupt, but a gradual process. Whenever possible, it should vary according to the child’s bodily complexion and temperament:

the stronger the child is, the sooner he is ready to be weaned; some at twelve months old, and some not till fifteen or eighteen months old; you may say two years if you please, but use the child [get the child used] to other Food by degrees, till it be acquainted with it.’
Jane Sharp, The Midwives Book, 1671.

These foods were also used for younger children when breast milk was not available, complementing animal milk. Pap was a mix of warm water and flour, or bread made soft by the addition of milk, water, or eggs. Panadas were also an option and consisted of cereals cooked in broth, similar to porridge. Both were given as supplements to children fed with animal milk as well as on their own. Still, the results could be mixed: the younger the baby, the more likely that they might die without breast milk.

Until the industrial revolution and the widespread use of bottles and, later, the development of artificial feeding through infant formula, breast milk was virtually the only option for babies. Medical writers like Guillemeau and Sharp urged readers to feed children with breast milk – whether it should be the mother or a wet nurse to do so is a different matter. Purees should be introduced little by little and, eventually, solid foods as well. Weaning should be gradual whenever possible. It might surprise you how contemporary (and sensible!) this advice sounds. But, like Juliet’s nurse reminds us, those who care for children have always tried to do their best to help them grow into strong and healthy adults. What we call ‘extended’ breastfeeding today was for centuries just plain ‘breastfeeding’, no adjective needed. With people being shamed for extended breastfeeding today, it might help to look back and see how things were in the past. After all, breastfeeding Juliet had been for the nurse

‘An honour! Were not I thine only nurse, I would say thou hadst suck’d wisdom from thy teat.’
(Shakespeare. Romeo and Juliet. Act I, Scene 3

Too bad about how the story ended. Oh well! There wasn’t much the nurse could do, and it wouldn’t be a tragedy otherwise, would it?!


Jacques Guillemeau, The Happy Delivery of Women (London, 1612).

William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, The Riverside Shakespeare, edited by G. B. Evans (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1974). (First published in 1597.)

Jane Sharp, The Midwives Book (London, 1671).

Further Reading:

David Cressy, Birth, Marriage, and Death: Ritual, Religion, and the Life-Cycle in Tudor and Stuart England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997).

Valerie Fildes, Breasts, Bottles and Babies (Edinburgh University Press, 1986).

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Motherhood and Wet Nurses: Breastfeeding in Early Modern Times

If you were living in early modern England (say in the 17th century), there were so many things to consider after you had a baby. But one of the main decisions had to do with breastfeeding: should the mother feed the child herself, or should a wet nurse be hired? (A wet nurse was someone whose job was to care for and breastfeed the baby.) If you chose the latter, how would you choose a wet nurse? Luckily, there was no lack of advice available. Midwifery manuals, recipe books, and domestic guides offered plenty of information, as did sermons at church and conversations with friends and family.

One of the main issues discussed had to do with the controversy over wet nurses. What defined a ‘good’ mother? What role should women have in society? Wet nurses exemplified a commodification of the reproductive body and were viewed with suspicion – yet wet nursing was arguably one of the most common occupations for women at the time.

So, how was breastfeeding understood from a medical point of view? And I don’t mean the use of breast milk as a remedy, which you can read about here. (I also wrote on this subject as a guest blogger on the Recipes Project – you can read the post here.) Well, according to the humoral theory, women stopped menstruating when they got pregnant because the blood was used to nourish the foetus. After birth, it travelled upwards in the body and, through heat, was transformed into milk, to continue its role of feeding the baby. That was why nursing women did not menstruate. Additionally, breastfeeding was usually considered incompatible with sexual activity, as sex might stimulate menstruation and, therefore, dry the milk. The same was true for aphrodisiacs such as celery. Since ancient times, nursing had been used as a contraceptive – and we know today that exclusive breastfeeding can delay the return of fertility, although it varies from one person to another.

That posed the first problem for someone who just had a child in early modern England. If you breastfed the baby, that would probably mean you wouldn’t get pregnant straight away. If you were someone who didn’t want to, such as a peasant wife with plenty of children already, great. But what if you were a queen, and your main job was to produce heirs? For instance, Anne Boleyn is said to have wanted to breastfeed her daughter Elizabeth herself, but because of the pressure to have a son, was not allowed to. Wet nurses were just a fact of life, a fixture of wealthy households and an integral part of society. Royal wet nurses were well paid and enjoyed a comfortable life as well as the prestige of nourishing and caring for royal children.

So, for those who couldn’t or didn’t wish to breastfeed, wet nurses were the best option. (Both animal milk and pap, a mixture using bread, were a less-than-ideal alternative, unsuitable to very young babies.) Wet nursing was one of the most significant female occupations in this period, and one of the most common ways for women to earn money. Many of them would be employed privately by families, but some worked for hospitals (such as the London Foundling Hospital) or were employed by parishes to take care of abandoned children. For families with means, the choice of a wet nurse was a very important matter.

But why was that? As Thomas Raynalde wrote, the ‘affections and qualities [of the wet nurse] passeth forth through the milke into the child, making the child of like condition and manners’. Breast milk had the potential to shape babies, to make them more similar (and emotionally attached to nurses) than to their biological families. In Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, Leontes is glad his wife Hermione (whom he believes to be wicked and adulterous) did not nurse their son, thereby contaminating him. (You can read more about it here.) Breast milk was often used in Elizabethan plays as a metaphor for purity/contamination, but also for influence and transformation, such as in Lady Macbeth’s invocation for her milk to be exchanged for gall.

The 16th and 17th centuries were a paradoxical time in England: medical and moral discourse grew increasingly anti-wet nurses, urging women to breastfeed their own children. Yet the number of wet nurses hired by aristocratic families grew. For centuries, wet nurses had been eyed with suspicion, but it was the Reformation that inspired a surge of Protestant writings condemning them and advocating for mothers to nurse their babies. There were two main arguments against wet nurses. The first was medical: milk was the primary agent of heredity, it was what shaped children into the adults they would become, from their health to temperament and physical form. The mother’s body became ‘porous’ through breastfeeding, with the sharing of fluids between mother and infant helping to attain humoral balance and, therefore, health. Medical writers also highlighted the importance of breastfeeding for the mother-child bond, and as the basis for maternal and filial love.

The second argument against wet nurses was less medical and more moral. The nurse’s character was intimately connected to the quality of her milk. The ‘wrong’ nurse could do more damage than good to her charge, through breastfeeding. Protestant writers often described wet nurses as ‘drunkards’, ‘sluts’, or ‘gossips’, corrupted from the inside. Babies could become morally as well as physically degraded by ‘bad milk’, but they were also at risk of neglect, as it was widely believed that only mothers could ‘truly love’ their babies.

Motherhood and breastfeeding are fascinating topics – I’ve only scratched the surface of this subject in this text. Breastfeeding had long been idealised and associated with the sacred, as we can see in the many depictions of the Virgin Mary nursing Jesus. It was undeniably intertwined with sex and sin, but it was also the mark of a true Christian mother. With the Reformation, breastfeeding gradually changed from a ‘sacred’ duty to a ‘natural’ one, which implied a misogynistic perception of wet nurses as potentially diabolic and ‘unnatural’, a deviant version of motherhood.  Wet nurses could disrupt the social order, by corrupting children and occupying a bigger role within the family than they ought to. Still, for wealthy women who mostly didn’t breastfeed their own children, they were a necessity, even if potentially dangerous.


Jacques Guillemeau, The Happy Delivery of Women (London, 1612).

Henry Newcome, The Compleat Mother: Or An Earnest Perswasive to all Mothers (especially those of Rank and Quality) to Nurse their own Children (London, 1695).

Ambroise Paré, Works (London, 1634).

Thomas Raynalde, The Birth of Mankinde (London, 1598).

Jane Sharp, The Midwives Book (London, 1671).

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