Baby farming was a term used in late-Victorian Era Britain (and, less commonly, in Australia and the United States) to mean the taking in of an infant or child for payment; if the infant was young, this usually included wet-nursing (breast-feeding by a woman not the mother). Some baby farmers "adopted" children for lump-sum payments, while others cared for infants for periodic payments. Though baby farmers were paid in the understanding that care would be provided, the term "baby farmer" was used as an insult, and improper treatment was usually implied. Illegitimacy and its attendant stigma were usually the impetus for a mother's decision to put her children "out to nurse" with a baby farmer, but baby farming also encompassed foster care and adoption in the period before they were regulated by British law.
Richer women, ladies of the class known as gentry, would also put their babies out to be cared for in the homes of villagers. Claire Tomalin gives a detailed account of this in her biography of Jane Austen, who was fostered in this manner, as were all her siblings, from a few months old until they were toddlers. Tomalin emphasises the emotional distance this created.
Particularly in the case of lump-sum adoptions, it was more profitable for the baby farmer if the infant or child she adopted died, since the small payment could not cover the care of the child for long. Some baby farmers adopted numerous children and then neglected them or murdered them outright (see infanticide). Several were tried for murder, manslaughter, or criminal neglect and were hanged. Margaret Waters (executed 1870) and Amelia Dyer (executed 1896) were two infamous British baby farmers, as were Amelia Sach and Annie Walters (executed 1903). The last baby farmer to be executed in Britain was Rhoda Willis, who was hanged in Wales in 1907. The only woman to be executed in New Zealand, Minnie Dean, was a baby farmer.
Spurred by a series of articles that appeared in the British Medical Journal in 1867, Parliament began to regulate baby farming in 1872 with the passage of the Infant Life Protection Act. A series of acts passed over the next seventy years, including the Children Act 1908 and the 1939 Adoption of Children (Regulation) Act, gradually placed adoption and foster care under the protection and regulation of the state.
The term has been used to describe the sale of eggs for use in assisted conception, particularly in vitro fertilization.
Baby farming in works of fiction
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