Like Mama Bears, Nursing Mothers Protect with a Vengeance

September 15th, 2011 by

Anyone who has ever seen a bear cub- hopefully from a safe distance- knows not to linger too long, for that mama bear is close by ready to defend her babies.  Many mums can relate to a fierce, mama bear instinct that can kick in even during pregnancy with many women surprising themselves with such heightened instincts.  As a recent study found out, this instinct is even stronger in women who nurse as opposed to those who bottle feed.

Published in the September issue of Psychological Science, the study looked at the “mama bear” affect, or women who aggressively protect themselves and their babies. As it turns out, women who breastfeed are far more likely to unleash their inner mama bear than women who bottle feed.  Previous animal studies have found that females are most aggressive during lactation, but this theory had yet to be proven in humans.

Although it may seem counterintuitive, when breastfeeding women behave in an aggressive manner, they actually register a lower blood pressure than other women.  Researchers explain that the study suggests breastfeeding can give women the courage they need to defend themselves by lowering the body’s typical stress response to fear.

The many health benefits of breastfeeding have been well established from healthier babies to reduced risk of heart disease and certain cancers for mum later in life. The new findings suggest that breastfeeding may also provide a buffer for the stresses new moms face while giving an extra boost of courage if they need to defend their child.  This is not to say that breastfeeding mums everywhere are out initiating bar fights, but rather that they may defend their child in a more aggressive manner.

Three groups of women took part in the study; 17 women who were formula feeding their babies, 18 breastfeeding women, and 20 women without kids.  Each woman was asked to compete against a research assistant posing as an overtly rude study participant, in a series of timed computerized tasks.  Upon winning a round, the winner was allowed to deliver a lengthy, loud “sound blast” to the loser – an act of aggression.  Breastfeeding mothers delivered “sound blasts” to their rude competitors that were twice as loud and twice as long as the other women in the study. Yet despite displaying such aggression, the breastfeeding mothers’ blood pressure was on average 10 points lower than the bottle feeding mums and 12 points lower than the non-moms.  Researchers conclude that the well documented non- human mammals’ down regulation of fear responses during lactation, necessary for species survival, can also be observed in humans.

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