I was lying on the floor, trying to entertain both Jack and Eli simultaneously. We had arrived in Ohio a few days earlier to celebrate Thanksgiving with my wife’s side of the family, and four couples and three children, including our two four-month-old boys, crowded the house.
“Aren’t you glad,” my sister-in-law Karla said to me, “that men can’t breastfeed?”
Lisa’s family watched her with a mixture of pity, awe and consternation as, every three hours, my wife Lisa slapped a baby boy to each breast. And so the question seemed rhetorical: Of course I’m glad I can’t breastfeed.
Except that, well, maybe I could.
“Actually,” I said to Karla, “men can breastfeed.”
“What?” she said.
I repeated myself, enjoying her reaction. Karla is a lovely Costa Rican lady who speaks her mind. “You know, Steve, what you’re telling me is pretty sick right now.”
So, allow me to explain: Men can, under the right circumstances, breastfeed. We own the basic hardware: mammary and pituitary glands. We even have breastfeeding ducts and, you’ve noticed, nipples. (Some men, like Mark Wahlberg, even have three nipples. But I digress.)
What men lack is the catalyst of pregnancy, during which the pituitary gland in women releases a hormone called prolactin that stimulates milk production. Under normal circumstances, the amount of prolactin in men never reaches those levels. But it can. There are century-old stories of men who began producing milk during a wife’s illness or after her death. As recently as 2002, in fact, a Sri Lankan widower is said to have breastfed his two infant daughters after his wife died.
Some downplay how much milk men can ever reliably produce, limiting the output to a “few drops.” But according to Scientific American, a man can breastfeed at least a little if he holds a suckling newborn to his nipples for a couple of (painful) weeks, or if he starves himself or takes a medication that stimulates the pituitary gland into producing prolactin.
So yes, Karla, breastfeeding is a possibility for me. But there is a dearth of research on the topic. In fact, scanning PubMed and Google scholar, I can’t uncover any scientifically controlled, peer-reviewed studies of breastfeeding in men.
There is something telling about this. Women are kicking much ass in the working world and outdoing men in college. More men than ever stay home now to take care of the little ones. Yet there is no push from feminists, workaday moms, or (all but the rarest of) men to see dudes start applying sons and daughters to their nipples on the regular. And the scientific community, which provides us someone to study pretty much anything, isn’t going to turn any heads.
A team of researchers famously studied the dynamics of fluid sloshing inside a cup of coffee as its bearer walked around. But just what would it take for a man to breastfeed? And how much milk might they produce? And for how long? And would it contain the same valuable antibodies as mom’s milk? These questions are, clearly, considered “pretty sick” right now.
Jokingly, my wife asked me why I don’t breastfeed. But, well, she was joking. She doesn’t want to see my sons clamped to my nipples anymore than I do. And in fact, when I started to think about what it would take to get me to breastfeed, I started thinking in terms of monetary compensation. Women do this for free, no matter how challenging or painful. But the figure I arrived at is $150,000. I even briefly considered registering a Kickstarter fund: Give me $150,000 and I’ll spend three weeks working my nipples with a hospital-grade pump!
I even sat down to check out exactly how Kickstarter works, but then, perhaps predictably, I began to feel a little sick.