Why Is Breastfeeding Called Nursing? How It Has Evolved

When the term “breastfeed” is mentioned, it is often linked to the word “nursing” in people’s minds.

Why is breastfeeding called nursing? For millennia, the word “breastfeeding” has meant feeding an infant from his/her mother’s breast. A nursing mother is one who feeds her baby milk directly from her breast. However, with the introduction and availability of breast pumps, the term now also includes pumping mothers.

There is more to breastfeeding than most people are aware of. Let’s take a look at history and see how the practice of breastfeeding has evolved and changed over time. 

History of Breastfeeding

Have you ever wondered what breastfeeding was like throughout history? When did it begin? How has it changed? 

From antiquity to the present day, breastfeeding has been a primary method for feeding infants.  

In ancient times, breastfeeding was highly esteemed and viewed as an essential, spiritual experience. 

Many statues and images throughout ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome depict goddesses breastfeeding their sons and granting them “spiritual food and immortality” through their milk. 

Over the centuries, breastfeeding remained highly esteemed, but it became less of a spiritual practice and more of a health necessity.

The use of wet nurses increased, especially among the wealthy. During the industrial revolution, many women were required to work out of the home and relied on wet nurses to feed their children. 

After the introduction of infant formula in the 20th century, the amount of breastfeeding women steadily decreased, and the use of a wet nurse became less common.

Breastfeeding became less accepted, and there was hardly any support for women who wanted to breastfeed. 

Beginning in the 1970s, medical advancements and research resulted in a worldwide movement promoting breastfeeding as the most nutritious option for feeding infants.

Breastfeeding became more widely accepted and was on the rise once more. Breast pumps became available to help women continue to breastfeed even if they were unable to nurse their children. 

Today, health professionals advocate for breastfeeding, and there is an incredible amount of support in place for breastfeeding women. 

How Views on Breastfeeding Have Evolved

It is a natural practice for mammals to feed their babies milk from their breasts. As mammals, humans are no different, and the bodies of both women and babies are designed to breastfeed.

From artwork, philosophy, and mythology, we know that this has been understood since the beginning of time. However, society’s views on breastfeeding have shifted since its beginning at the dawn of time. 

In the ancient era of Greek and Roman mythology, breastfeeding was viewed as a sacred practice.

Goddesses were depicted with naked breasts and feeding their young. The ability to breastfeed was an honor and somewhat of a spiritual obligation for a mother. 

During the Renaissance era, nursing was considered unattractive among the wealthy and aristocratic class, but they still understood the importance of offering breast milk to their children.

Thus, wet nurses of the lower class were hired to provide milk for the infants of wealthy families. 

Once safe and nutritious infant formula was readily available, many women stopped breastfeeding and used formula instead. For the first time, there was another option besides breastfeeding, which was enticing for many mothers.

There was less emphasis on the health benefits of breast milk, and a huge marketing push for formula led to the steady decline of breastfeeding mothers. Breastfeeding quickly became taboo. 

It wasn’t until just recently in the late twentieth century that breastfeeding started to regain its popularity but still not quite like before. 

Medical research continues to prove the health benefits of breast milk for infants, and health professionals began to advocate, once again, for breastfeeding mothers.

There is much more support in place now to help women accomplish their breastfeeding goals.

Consider, for example, the availability of electric pumps and lactation services through insurance, milk banks for donors, laws to protect breastfeeding and pumping in public and in the workplace, and milk-sharing groups on social media.

Nowadays, breastfeeding is understood to be more than just nursing; rather, it is the act of giving your baby your breast milk — even if it is expressed breast milk.   

Breastfeeding Statistics

As of the August 2022 census, 58% of infants were exclusively breastfed for 6 months, and 19% of breastfed infants were supplemented with formula within the first two days of life.

While breastfeeding is becoming more common, the use of formula still abounds, and according to WHO, two out of three of today’s babies are formula-fed.  

A mother wearing a purple shirt breastfeeding her baby in bed.

What Is a Wet Nurse?

Many women choose not to breastfeed or are unable to breastfeed for a variety of reasons. A wet nurse is a lactating woman who is hired to nurse or breastfeed another woman’s child. 

The use of a wet nurse was a common practice before the introduction of the bottle and infant formula in the 20th century. While it seems a bit taboo to us, wet nursing saved the lives of many babies. 

In many instances, wet nurses were employed if the mother died during childbirth. Other reasons include if the mother was unable to lactate, did not produce enough milk, or chose not to breastfeed due to work or other circumstances.

In some cultures, particularly Western aristocracy, a wet nurse was hired because breastfeeding was considered unfashionable.

Wet nursing was most common before the 20th century, but the practice has begun to make a small comeback in the 21st century.

While women nowadays may not nurse another woman’s baby, the idea of “milk sharing” is becoming an increasingly popular phenomenon. 

What Is Exclusive Breastfeeding?

If you, as a mother, are exclusively breastfeeding your baby, it means that your baby is only offered breastmilk and you do not supplement with formula or animal milk.

Types of Exclusive Breastfeeding

When most people think of breastfeeding, they think of nursing. While nursing is the most common form of breastfeeding, there are other ways to provide breast milk for your child. 

In fact, many women exclusively breastfeed their children without ever being able to nurse for a variety of reasons including premature birth, tongue and/or lip ties, or having a low milk supply.

The following are a few of the most common types of exclusive breastfeeding: 

  • Nursing
  • Exclusively pumping
  • Nursing and pumping
  • Milk sharing, either with friends or purchasing from a milk bank
  • Donor milk

Benefits of Exclusive Breastfeeding

The phrase “breast is best” came from somewhere. While infant formula is a completely safe and healthy alternative to breastmilk, there is no denying the many health benefits of the “liquid gold.”

Breast milk is the best source of nutrition for most babies, and as your baby grows, your breast milk will change to meet his or her nutritional needs.

Breast milk also contains antibodies from the mother, protecting the baby’s immune system from many illnesses.

According to the CDC, babies who are breastfed have a lower risk of several health conditions including: 

  • Asthma
  • Ear infections
  • Obesity
  • Type 1 diabetes
  • Severe lower respiratory disease
  • SIDS
  • Gastrointestinal infections

Average Age To Stop Breastfeeding

The American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization recommend that an infant be breastfed exclusively for the first 6 months with continued breastfeeding in addition to complementary foods for up to two years.

On average, breastfeeding women strive to breastfeed their child for the first year of life. 

Related Questions: 

Is Breastfeeding in Public Legal?

Absolutely. It is legal for women to breastfeed in public or private places in all 50 states, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. 

Why Are Some People Offended by Breastfeeding?

Many breastfeeding mothers have fears or anxieties about breastfeeding in public because they run the risk of being the target of dirty looks, stares, or gossip from those around them.

While breastfeeding in public is becoming more normalized, many are still offended by seeing a woman breastfeed her child in a public place.

The reasons why a person would get offended by breastfeeding are personal and different for everyone.

However, in today’s culture, a woman’s breasts have become extremely sexualized, and people have mentally incorporated the breast with sexuality rather than a body part created to naturally feed a woman’s child. 

Thus, when a woman breastfeeds her child in public, some people become offended by the exposed breast and sucking child. It has become a rather taboo thing to see in public and many believe it should be done in a private place. 


Many people are ignorant when it comes to knowing exactly what “breastfeeding” entails, and that’s because it has changed so much over the years! There is a lot to understand about it!

It is my hope that your understanding and appreciation of breastfeeding have grown from reading this information.