If you have ever cared for someone else’s hungry breastfed baby, the thought that things would be easier if only you could nurse the baby has probably crossed your mind. If you were lactating at the time, you may have seriously debated the ethics of latching the baby onto your breast. Complete/full time nursing of another's infant, often for pay, is called wet-nursing. Cross-nursing is the occasional nursing of a child whose own parent continues to breastfeed their child on a regular basis. LLL is aware that many mothers in many cultures have informally shared their milk and cross-nursed among family members and trusted friends. LLL also recognizes that in times of severe maternal illness or death and natural disasters, sharing milk has been lifesaving for babies.
Most situations in which cross-nursing is practiced are private arrangements made between parents and the others involved. There are many situations in which this may be desired. For example, in a family consisting of two women and their children, the non-birthing mother may choose to induce lactation so that she can nurse their baby along with the birthing mother. In some situations the non-birthing mother may have given birth in the past, but not necessarily. Two sisters or close friends who are both nursing their own children, may choose to nurse each other’s children when the child’s mother is not available. Cross-nursing may also occur when a breastfeeding parent is hospitalized and is unable to nurse their own child. Perhaps this is due to an emergency or when the potential effects of the nursing parent’s prescribed medication on the baby requires temporary weaning. As it is rarely talked about, there is no clear data about how many breastfeeding mothers and parents cross-nurse occasionally or regularly.
There are some things to consider if you wish to enter into a cross-nursing relationship with another nursing parent. It is important that you trust the person with whom you are cross-nursing and that you are confident in the safety of the milk they will be providing your baby. You can look at the criteria that milk banks use to help you determine whether or not a person’s milk is safe for your baby. For more information see the LLLC article Human Milk Banking and Milk Sharing.
If you nurse another child in addition to your own, your body may not be able to provide enough milk for both children. This occurs when the other baby requires more milk than your body can provide. Various factors, including the ages of the two babies and the regularity of the cross nursing schedule, would affect whether or not the cross-nursing parent's milk supply could be increased to meet the needs of both babies. Equally, if someone else is nursing your baby for you while you are away, your milk supply may be reduced if your own milk is not removed, either by pumping or hand expression.
Not all babies will cooperate easily with cross-nursing. A difference in the let-down, either in the timing or in the forcefulness, may confuse or frustrate your baby. Mothers have reported that babies four months or older often refuse to nurse from another breastfeeding parent and will choose to wait until their own mother (or primary nursing mother) returns. Babies of this age also often refuse to take a bottle as a substitute for breastfeeding.
If you have any questions about cross-nursing and how to make it work for you in your unique situation, please contact a La Leche League Leader for information and support.