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Mammals Suck…Milk! at Harvard with Katie Hinde

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Breastfeeding is one of the most politically hot topics of our day. The subject cuts across some touchy areas: breast milk v. formula, work v. stay-at-home, how long is enough? Oh, and don’t forget breastfeeding in public or breast milk selling and sharing. Weigh in on any one of these discussions and you are pretty much guaranteed to piss-off at least a few people in any setting, no matter your point of view.

So…what if there was a way to consider breastfeeding without so many of the usual political or personal filters put on the topic? Well, earlier this month at the Harvard Science Center I was pleased to sit in on a lecture about lactation that seemed, to me anyway, to have done just that. The presentation was given by Katie Hinde, PhD, Assistant Professor in the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University, and it was a lay-persons review of some fascinating scientific studies digging into what we know and most notably, what we don’t know, concerning the way in which mammals breastfeed their young and the value of the milk (and the mother-infant interaction) to the development of the young.

In her presentation Katie discussed research on how the composition and quantity of rhesus macaques monkey milk varied depending on the sex of the baby monkey, analysis on the purpose and effect of various milk components such as oligosaccharides, cortisol and bacteria. We learned that the mother naturally creates different types and amounts of milk for sons and daughters and that the components in mammal milk are widely varied, vast and largely unknown. Throughout the presentation it became clear that the extremely limited knowledge we have today about what these components are and what they actually do is only the tip of a fascinating iceberg.

Some of the other interesting aspects of the research Katie was highlighting included the intertwined elements of nutrition and socialization for the monkeys. One point, which jumped out at me, dealt with the scientific research process itself. In that, to study the natural behavior of mammals such as the macaque monkeys it is impossible to separate the socialization and the feeding. I found that a notable reminder that there is more going in with infant feeding than simple milk transfer. It was also really thought provoking to consider the various resource trade offs that were occurring for a monkey mother based on the age and size she was at each of her pregnancies.

Overall, I came away with a renewed sense of wonder about how closely linked maternal and child development really are and how little we understand about the dynamics in play. I am in no way fluent in human evolutionary biology so I am not going to try and break down this awesome science because that would be really embarrassing for me. Do, however, go and check out Katie’s blog posts on sex biased milkmilk and behavior, the Comparative Lactation Lab, her chuckle worthy twitter feed @Mammals_Suck, or any of her published research if  you want to geek out on this stuff as it is well worth a look. And don’t blame me if you get hooked on it because I am warning you, Katie makes things really fun and interesting. I mean, who can resist the competitive challenge of filling out your picks and cheering on your favorite mammals in a basketball bracket style twitter game of Mammal March Madness? Trust me, this is a blast and educational to boot so keep your eye out for the 2014 version that will launch in, you guessed it, March of 2014.

It was fascinating to consider how all this works in nature and for an hour or so to strip out a lot of the noise contributed by the modern human response to the topic of breastfeeding. I look forward to following Katie’s work as well as keep my ear to the ground for other, similar research underway – sometimes, just maybe, mother nature is the best teacher, after all, she has had millions of years to perfect her lesson plans.

A special shout out to Diana Cassar-Uhl, IBCLC for initially introducing me to Katie’s work!

Katie and I at the end of her talk which I will link when the link is available.

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