Wanted in China: More wet nurses

In China's spiraling milk-contamination crisis, some mothers are making money selling their breast milk.

As news spread of the deadly taint of the industrial chemical melamine in China's milk supply last week, new father Jimandy Wu approached his wife with a business proposition: She could become a nai ma, or wet nurse. He had read on the Internet about the practice, in which a woman feeds her own breast milk to someone else's child.

“Why not,” says his 24-year-old wife, Tina Huang, a mother in the southern Chinese boomtown of Shenzhen who says she produces more milk than her own 2-month-old baby can use. “It's a pity that I waste my breast milk when I see on TV so many kids with no milk to drink because of the contaminated powder.”

Huang's old job as a secretary paid just 1,000 yuan ($146) a month. The 12,000 yuan she will earn each month as a wet nurse will “buy some good clothes for our daughter, and send her to a better kindergarten,” Wu says.

As Chinese parents panic about the tainted milk – which authorities now admit began in late 2007 – that has killed four and sickened more than 53,000 children, the fallout is breathing new life into an ancient profession. Wages for Chinese wet nurses, who post online ads and sign up at housework agencies around the country, have doubled since the milk crisis began on Sept. 12. They now run as high as 18,000 yuan a month.

On Tuesday in a Shenzhen neighborhood, six new mothers showed up looking for work at Zhong Jia Family Services Co., which serves as a broker for maids and, increasingly, women like Huang. “I've been working in this industry for over 10 years and never seen such a craze for wet nurses,” says Ai Xiaoxiong, the company's manager. Since Friday, Ai has registered 260 women and found employment for 20.

While doctors say any breast milk from a healthy woman will help a baby grow and protect it against disease, the practice of having another woman nurse one's own baby was largely abandoned in the West in the 19th century. But the practice is common in a number of countries. China has a long tradition of wet nursing, but the Communist Party considered the practice decadent and tried to stamp it out.

Breast-feeding is on the decline in China, where commercial formulas are heavily marketed. But many public-health experts promote breast-feeding. “This formula scandal is like nature's wake-up call to all of us. It's not just about unscrupulous manufacturers,” says Yanhong Wheeler, a breast-feeding advocate and author under the pen name Xiao Wu who is often compared in China to the late Benjamin Spock, the famous pediatrician and author.

Some parents searching for a wet nurse say they're desperate for an alternative to powder. Xiao Guidong, father of a 4-month-old, posted an ad on a popular online message board asking for a wet nurse who was “in perfect health, has plenty of milk, and has good hygiene.” He's offering to pay the woman 3,000 yuan a month, plus free room and board.

He admits some might view this as exploitation, but he disagrees. “They need higher pay and a better job while I need them to look after my baby. It is a good deal. We help each other,” he says.

To make sure that everyone is on the same page, Ai, the Shenzhen agent, requires that any potential wet nurse come into his office. He also asks to see a mother's natural baby.

“The fatter the baby, the better the milk,” he says.