Wet Nurses in Ancient Egyptian Times

In ancient Egyptian times, wet nurses helped more than just mothers who were unable to breastfeed their children. Mothers who belonged in noble circles also used a wet nurse. Because of the demand for a wet nurse, they were well compensated for their contributions and enjoyed a good status. In this article you will encounter why wet nurses were important and other aspects regarding ancient Egyptian childbirth.

The Role of a Wet Nurse

The need for wet nurses was great because the death rate for women giving birth was high. They even had legal papers drawn up for wet nurses that would link her to a child for a certain number of years for nursing. During this time, the wet nurse could not become pregnant, as it would affect her lactation.

Within the royal family and in noble social circles, being a wet nurse was a highly sought after position. It gave non-royal woman a rather influential position in society. If you were a royal wet nurse, chances were high that you’d be married to an official in the high court. Unfortunately, the level of importance diminished when the Romans became an influence in Egypt.

Breast Feeding

Ancient Egyptian children were breast fed up to three years as breast milk provided a nutritious advantage over regular food. Nursing women were looked at as successful women. Medical papyri found noted that the quality of the milk should be tested before a child received it. Milk that smelled like dried manna was considered goof, while milk that smelled like fish was deemed bad. Mother’s milk overall was seen in a positive light. Not only was it used to feed children, but it was a home remedy for treating burns and aiding fertility.

The Placenta

There is evidence to suggest that the placenta held a special significance to the ancient Egyptians. Old Kingdom references to the royal placenta have been illustrated in connection to members of the royal family. The image makes its way into various artistic depictions of ancient traditions. For example, it is assumed that it was the placenta seen being carried on a pole in procession in front of the king on the Narmer Palette.

The reliefs in the Sun temple of King Niuserre date back to the 5th Dynasty, and show what is most likely the placenta being carried by a priest of Aset ,  the mother the Living King in the form of Heru (Horus). This leads researchers to believe that a ‘cult of the royal placenta’ existed during early times. It seems that the placenta continued to be of importance to the King throughout the history of Egypt.

In common circles, women viewed the placenta as a direct link to the life of a child. It was most likely buried underneath the threshold of a family’s house or tossed into the Nile with the belief that the child would survive. There is another theory that since the placenta was rich in iron, the mother may have eaten a small piece of it. In some cases, the child may even be offered a bit.