Doctor: Wet Nursing Not Uncommon, but Some Risks Involved

Video of actress Salma Hayek breast-feeding a baby in the war-torn country of Sierra Leone definitely has people talking.

But was the act really so unusual?

“I don’t think this is totally out of the norm,” said Dr. Manny Alvarez, managing editor of health at “There are certainly children in areas of the world that are in dire need of nutrition, and if you are able to provide them with a mother’s breast milk, I think it’s a great thing.”

Hayek, who was still pumping milk for her 1-year-old daughter Valentina, was in the African country on a goodwill trip last September. She allowed a camera crew from ABC's "Nightline" to capture the incident on film.

Click here to see the Nightline video.

"The baby was perfectly healthy, but the mother didn't have milk,” Hayek was quoted as saying. “You should have seen his eyes. ...When he felt the nourishment, he immediately stopped crying.”

So, the question is: Was this safe for Hayek to do?

Alvarez said it probably was, especially if the baby was healthy.

However, in some cases, breast-feeding is contraindicated, Alvarez noted. Mothers infected with HIV, hepatitis or taking certain medications are sometimes discouraged from breast-feeding.

Another common problem women can have is an infection of the breast, which is known as mastitis. During the suckling process, bacteria is pushed into the milk ducts, promoting an infection that can lead to abscess if not treated appropriately.

“You know, wet nursing is nothing new,” Alvarez said. “It’s been around for centuries. But of course today the practice is much more controlled. Wet nurses are screened for infectious diseases and we know they are healthy.”

While wet nursing was very popular during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, it is not a common practice in today's society.

These days, the business of wet nursing is actually more centered on women donating their breast milk to hospitals, Alvarez said.

The milk then is sent to a processing plant where it is tested and repackaged and sent to nurseries all over the country.

“Breast milk is one of the best forms of nutrition, especially for children who are premature or have other health issues,” Alvarez said. “Many women rely on the donation of breast milk in this country to keep their children healthy.”

As for what Hayek did, Alvarez said it sends an important message.

“You know one breast feeding is not going to make a huge difference at the end of the day,” he said. “But it tells you the significance of the need for children to get the right nutrition — and I think it’s a symbolic act on her part.”