Question: I’m expecting our first child next month, and my partner and I are thrilled. However, I’m concerned because I have to go back to work full time (including some overnight travel time) when she is six weeks old.
My partner is self employed, and wants to be involved in every step of the birth/bonding process, so he plans to be a stay at home dad..
We’re well aware of the many benefits of breastfeeding (including bonding), and would love for both of us to be able to nurse our little girl.
I’ve heard that it’s possible for men to lactate, and I wonder if that can be true. Can men breastfeed their babies?
Answer: The answer is yes… and no. Under certain unusual circumstances, men are able to lactate. There have even been rare cases reported where a man was able to produce milk to feed the baby of a mother who died in childbirth.
However, inducing lactation in a male is extremely difficult, and even if successful, is unlikely to result in production of more than very small amounts of milk.
Inducing lactation in women isn’t easy. It a requires lots of hard work, even though they have the advantage of breast development that occurs during puberty. Mothers who are inducing lactation require constant monitoring of milk output and baby’s weight gain, and often the use of hormone treatments or prescription medications to stimulate production of even small amounts of breast milk.
Except in rare cases, being a breastfeeding father isn’t realistic or practical. Out of over 4,000 species of mammal, the only one where males spontaneously produce milk is an Indonesian fruit bat. Nobody knows why.
Men are born with the basic equipment to lactate. They have pituitary glands, milk ducts, and nipples. What they don’t have is the advantage of the natural hormonal changes that occur naturally during puberty and pregnancy in order to prepare the female body for childbirth and lactation.
During pregnancy, women’s pituitary glands produce prolactin, a hormone which stimulates the development of the mammary glands and triggers milk production. Males also produce prolaction, but in much lower amounts than females. Even when they aren’t pregnant, women have twice as much prolaction than men, but during pregnancy, their prolaction production can jump by as much as ten times.
During uterine development, both males and females fetuses form similar breast tissue. Expectant mothers pass prolaction from the placenta to their growing baby in the womb. After birth, that prolactin may cause the newborn baby – boys as well as girls – to produce small amounts of fluid from their breasts. This spontaneous lactation is often referred to as ‘witch’s milk ‘, and disappears a few days after birth.
Close physical interaction with infants, like skin-to-skin contact and cuddling, increases the amount of prolaction in the bloodstream of both moms and dads. So does frequent nipple stimulation, either from the baby’s sucking or the use of manual expression or breast pumps.
Men have the basic breast tissue needed to produce milk, but even with a prolaction surge caused by frequent contact with an infant or stimulation from a breast pump, they don’t have nearly as many milk ducts as a female does to begin with, so significant milk production is very unlikely to occur.
The technical term for spontaneous production of milk in a man is “galactorreah”. When this occurs, it usually indicates a medical problem such as a testosterone deficiency, hyperactive pituitary gland, liver cirrhosis, or as a side effect from certain medications.
Males who are in the process of transitioning gender from male to a female often take large amounts of female hormones which can result in the development of breast tissue and result in lactation.
Because lactation in males is so uncommon, we don’t know much about it. Questions like how long it will take to produce milk, the amount that will be produced, and whether the milk contains the same nutrients and antibodies as mother’s breast milk have yet to be answered.
Maybe one day, research will tell us more about how to combine hormonal treatments and nipple stimulation to allow men to share in the breastfeeding role with their babies. For now, mothers will the ones to feed their babies from the breast, but fathers can be involved with nurturing and caring for their little ones in many other ways.
Anne Smith, IBCLC