Oct 032011

By TM Bernard

If you have mammary glands, or simply like/love/marvel them for viewing, snuggling or other pleasures, chances are you have opinions about what they’ve been designed for. Few anatomical regions elicit as much sociopolitical vitriol as the female breast.

It’s utilitarian! Cry the lactation crowds. Believe me when I say – having had enough confrontations – they mean it when they insist that nothing come between your baby and your boobies, including your own emotional or physical health. To ‘breast is best’ advocates, your sweater puppies serve one function, and it ain’t for a woman to decide, bless her pretty little post-partum brain and all.

Then there’s the whole debate about putting your breast view forward. Public displays are strictly verboten (New Jersey courts just made that ruling) if a woman wants to air her private valleys. For a whole host of reasons beyond the scope of this column, that’s just so wrong. Beyond the moral debate – as if body parts can be moralized – some people just freak out about the whole non-erotic useful purpose for the bosom.

It’s enough to make a woman shriek…oh wait, a new study actually says that’s likely to happen to moms who are breast-feeding. Turns out, those mama tits turns a gal into a mama bear under certain circumstances.

The small-scale study conducted in the US investigated something known as ‘lactation aggression’ or ‘maternal defense’ in mammals. It found that breastfeeding provides mothers with a buffer against stress including giving them an extra burst of courage if they felt that they or their child is being threatened.

Fortunately for Mommy and Me groupies, the aggression demonstrated by breast-feeding mothers has its limits. “Breast-feeding mothers aren’t going to go out and get into bar fights, but if someone is threatening them or their infant, our research suggests they may be more likely to defend themselves in an aggressive manner,” the lead researcher said.

Take that!

For the study, researchers recruited three groups of women — 18 nursing mothers, 17 women who were feeding formula to their babies and 20 non-mothers. Each woman was asked to compete in a series of computerized time-reaction tasks against a research assistant posing as an overtly rude study participant. The women’s infants were supervised in an adjoining room. Upon winning a round in the competition, the victor was allowed to press a button and deliver a loud and lengthy “sound blast” to the loser — an act of aggressiveness.

The researchers found that breast-feeding mothers delivered sound blasts to the rude research assistant that were more than twice as loud and long as those administered by non-mothers and nearly twice as loud and long as those by bottle-feeding mothers. This was true both before and after the breast-feeding mothers nursed their infants.

They also measured participants’ stress levels via blood pressure during the experiment. Breast-feeding mothers’ systolic blood pressure was found to be approximately 10 points lower than women who were feeding formula to their infants and 12 points lower than non-mothers.

In other words, previous research in non-human mammals that shows how lactation enables heightened defensive aggression by down-regulating the body’s response to fear, works in humans too. We are such animals after all.