By Linda Campbell
Medical History, Vol.33:3 (1989)
Introduction: Between them Dorothy McLaren and Valerie Fildes have pioneered the study of English wet-nursing. In her work on the parish of Chesham during the late sixteenth century, McLaren drew attention to the way in which prolonged lactation reduced fertility. Believing that most mothers understood this, she suggested that some women might have become wet-nurses in order to limit family size. Fildes, casting her net much wider, has looked at wet-nursing from the earliest times until the present day. In her work on the early modern period, Fildes has focused upon the Home Counties, where nursing babies from London was almost a local industry. In particular, she has pointed the danger of confusing parish nurses, who were often themselves on poor relief and therefore not in a position to do the best for their charges, with professional wet-nurses who were usually well-paid and well-respected. A failure to distinguish between these two types of nurse has led some historians, most notably Lawrence Stone, to associate all wet-nursing with parental indifference and neglect.