Self-Motivation
David Goggins
Former Navy Seal
Career Development
Bryan Cranston
Actor
Critical Thinking
Liv Boeree
International Poker Champion
Emotional Intelligence
Amaryllis Fox
Former CIA Clandestine Operative
Management
Chris Hadfield
Retired Canadian Astronaut & Author
Learn
from the world's big
thinkers
Start Learning

“Breast” Behavior: A Q&A with Katie Hinde

Katie Hinde is the Director of the Comparative Lactation Laboratory at Harvard University. Her research examines mother's milk and how it contributes to infant development in humans and primates--including behavior, cognition and the brain.  Here, she discusses the effects of breast milk on behavior, what she thinks human mothers should know and the recent (and controversial) Time magazine breastfeeding cover

Katie Hinde is the Director of the Comparative Lactation Laboratory at Harvard University. Her research examines mother's milk and how it contributes to infant development in humans and primates--including behavior, cognition and the brain.  Here, she discusses the effects of breast milk on behavior, what she thinks human mothers should know and the recent (and controversial) Time magazine breastfeeding cover


Q:  You recently found that infant monkeys who received more milk energy, either through more or fattier mother's milk, were more comfortable being parted from their mothers and exploring a novel environment.  Why do you think that is?

Katie Hinde:  It was very interesting.  And it would seem that if you have a Mom that makes a lot of milk, you can afford to be very behaviorally active and very exploratory.  You've got plenty of energy to keep growing and extend on behavioral activity, and you can always go back to Mom and get more energy.  When Mom is making less energy, then you have to be more behaviorally inhibited since most of the energy has to be relegated to growth and maintenance instead of behavioral activity.  But what we don't know is whether we see this difference because there are constituents in milk that are building the brain differently or the milk energy affords opportunities to gain behavioral differences that then, in turn, have the brain develop differently.  Right now, it's an open question that we hope to answer in the future. 

Q: That's the first study of its kind.  Is there any related work?

Katie Hinde:  In Italy, researchers looked at cortisol transfer through milk and how that affects behavioral development.  And it looks like milk cortisol does a lot of the same thing that high licking and grooming mothers do to their babies.  These scientists found that the infants that got higher cortisol in milk, especially males, were more exploratory, more able to adjust to novel environments and better able to down-regulate stress and do so more efficiently.  But there's one problem:  high cortisol is linked to high milk energy.  We need to see which of the two is responsible for this effect. 

Q:  This animal work is very interesting but, of course, everyone wants to know how it applies to humans.  Why is it so hard to study the effects of breast milk on cognitive development in human children?

Katie Hinde:  For the most part, researchers have compared formula feeding versus breast feeding and it's a problem because it's a self-selection kind of thing.  Most women have the capacity to synthesize milk but many elect to use formula--for all kinds of different reasons.  So basically, what it comes down to is that there are a lot of physiological, socioeconomic, cultural and any number of other factors that are going to influence whether a woman breast feeds or not.  So attributing cognitive developmental differences to breastfeeding versus formula feeding is really tricky, because there are all these other things going on that are also going to affect an infant’s developmental trajectories.

Q:  What did you think of the recent Time Magazine cover?

Katie Hinde: I thought it was unnecessarily inflammatory.  I just thought it was a marketing gimmick, trying to stake a claim in the media Mommy Wars.  And those Mommy Wars are just an incredible disservice to women, mothers and children and anyone who cares about these things. 

Q:  What is your take-home message for mothers, especially those that are considering breastfeeding?

Katie Hinde: I think mothers are very aware of how important breast feeding is for health but studies have shown time and time again that a mother's ability to stick with breastfeeding is contingent on the amount of support she gets from her social network.  So what we as a society need to do is to make sure that all the people around mothers get the same message about how important breastfeeding is.  Let's face it; every Mom is doing the best she can on any given day.  And my hope is that we can remove all the challenges and barriers that make breastfeeding so difficult for Moms, so everyone can have as many best days as they can.

Image courtesy of Elena P./Shutterstock.com

Live tomorrow! Unfiltered lessons of a female entrepreneur

Join Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and best-selling author Charles Duhigg as he interviews Victoria Montgomery Brown, co-founder and CEO of Big Think, live at 1pm EDT tomorrow.

Two MIT students just solved Richard Feynman’s famed physics puzzle

Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.

Surprising Science

Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.

Keep reading Show less

Improving Olympic performance with asthma drugs?

A study looks at the performance benefits delivered by asthma drugs when they're taken by athletes who don't have asthma.

Image source: sumroeng chinnapan/Shutterstock
Culture & Religion
  • One on hand, the most common health condition among Olympic athletes is asthma. On the other, asthmatic athletes regularly outperform their non-asthmatic counterparts.
  • A new study assesses the performance-enhancement effects of asthma medication for non-asthmatics.
  • The analysis looks at the effects of both allowed and banned asthma medications.

Keep reading Show less

Weird science shows unseemly way beetles escape after being eaten

Certain water beetles can escape from frogs after being consumed.

R. attenuata escaping from a black-spotted pond frog.

Surprising Science
  • A Japanese scientist shows that some beetles can wiggle out of frog's butts after being eaten whole.
  • The research suggests the beetle can get out in as little as 7 minutes.
  • Most of the beetles swallowed in the experiment survived with no complications after being excreted.
Keep reading Show less
Mind & Brain

Why are we fascinated by true crime stories?

Several experts have weighed in on our sometimes morbid curiosity and fascination with true crime.

Scroll down to load more…
Quantcast