Male lactation: Can a 33-year-old guy learn to breast-feed?

Health and medicine explained.
May 25 2011 7:29 AM

Man Milk

My curious quest to breast-feed.

(Continued from Page 1)

At least that was the thinking of Ragnar Bengtsson, a Swedish college student who attained a brief infamy in 2009 when he tried to make himself lactate as part of an attempt to measure the contents of male breast milk. Bengtsson didn't take any hormone supplements and instead tried to induce lactation by pumping himself every three hours. After more than two months, Bengtsson gave up. He never produced a drop of milk.

Bengtsson's failure shouldn't be that surprising. Even for women, the process can be difficult. A comprehensive survey of induced lactation in women hasn't been done, but a researcher at Canada's Goldfarb Breastfeeding Clinic monitored 228 surrogate and adoptive mothers and found only 31 percent were able to reach full milk production. (Most women were able to produce at least some breast milk.) Since men don't go through the same period of breast development during puberty—when lobules become more numerous and the fatty tissue that supports them bulks up—it's highly unlikely a man could ever produce the same volume of milk as a woman. In any case, Bengtsson's failed quest didn't win him many admirers in the United States. The talk show host Cenk Uygur spoke for lots of American men when he called the Swede a "pussy."

That word, and Bengtsson's failure, echoed in my head as I imagined my manly frame softening with mother's milk. Or not producing any milk at all. I still felt good about my chances: For every dry-nippled Bengtsson there was a counter-example, like the Sri Lankan man who breast-fed his infant daughter after his wife died in 2002. Men who claimed to have experienced spontaneous lactation or successfully pumped for milk posted their Eureka moments to the comments for related articles online. I've even found some YouTube videos of men squeezing milk from their nipples.

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I was scared of side effects from the hard-core pharmaceuticals, so I decided to repeat Bengtsson's experiment with the addition of some herbal supplements. I settled on liquid fenugreek extract, an organic lactation booster from Whole Foods. "I started taking More Milk Plus capsules almost a week ago and within 24 hours I was able to pump twice the amount I would have normally pumped," exclaimed one of the (presumably female) testimonials on the company website—a promising omen. I took triple the normal dose, swallowing three gel caps four times a day. I also drank a lactation tea a few times daily, which had the same dusky licorice flavor as the pills, and started consuming putative milk-boosting foods like kale, oatmeal, and beer.

It was strange to apply a breast pump for the first time. My nipples aren't accustomed to regular stimulation, and though I felt like I was defying the natural order, pumping was surprisingly pleasant. Nipples are filled with nerve endings, after all, and the gentle upward tug of the pump was both comforting and erotic.

As the days went on, the comfort turned into monotony. The happy surprise of those first few upward pulls became predictable, a mechanical intrusion into my workday. I couldn't afford the electric pumps, which can cost up to $300, and had to settle for a manual one. It was impossible to do anything useful while holding the pump's suction cup to my chest with one hand and operating the handle with the other. I struggled with the routine, and the loss of at least two or three productive hours each day.

The herbal supplements were no help, either. After seven weeks, I never wanted to taste fenugreek again, and I still hadn't produced any milk. If I was going to get over the hormonal hump, it seemed like I'd have to double the frequency of my pumping at least, and start waking up every three hours throughout the night for bonus sessions. I started to have doubts. Was this really worth it?

And then I realized I was missing something essential: a child. For all our assumptions about breast-feeding, the one abiding truth is that it exists to nourish and comfort new life. The walls of gender could be broken down, but without a child to benefit, what was the point? I'd read with great interest the anthropologist Barry Hewlett's account of his time with the Aka Pygmy tribe in central Africa, where fathers suckle their children when the mothers are away. Not all of the men lactated, but they seemed to understand the gesture is as important emotionally as it is physiologically. Aka men are within reach of their children 47 percent of the time—more than for any other group in the world, according to Hewlett. That sounded beautiful to me. But without a child of my own, I couldn't compare myself to the Aka. Good reader, I lost heart.

Maybe one day I'll try again to climb over the gender wall, this time risking the mortification of a swollen breast and the ominous side effects of hormone-boosting pharmaceuticals. It would be nice to have a better reason than curiosity, I think. Perhaps a little baby—someone in need of sustenance and intimacy, searching for a breast to nuzzle. Yours or mine could do.

Also in Slate, Chris Beam explained whether women with breast implants can breast-feed, and Sydney Speisel cast a skeptical eye on some of the more exuberant claims about the benefits of breast-feeding. In 2007, Emily Anthes explained the effects of fatherhood on men's bodies and brains.

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