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Biology Behind Obese Mothers Abandoning Breast-Feeding

Studies have shown overweight and obese mothers are significantly more likely to quit breast-feeding their infants sooner than do healthy-weight mothers. An important reason why is the weaker biological response that heavier women have to their babies' suckling, according to a recent study.

Overweight and obese women have a lower prolactin response to suckling, researchers found. Prolactin is a hormone produced by the pituitary gland that stimulates the mammary glands to produce milk soon after birth. A lower prolactin response to suckling would be expected to compromise the ability of overweight and obese women to produce milk and, over time, lead to a significantly shorter period of breast-feeding.

Researchers measured concentrations of prolactin and progesterone in 40 mothers just before and 30 minutes after breast-feeding, at 48 hours after delivery and again a week after birth. Some women were overweight or clinically obese with a body mass index of at least 26 before conception. Some were not overweight.

The researchers found that the overweight and obese women produced dramatically less prolactin 48 hours after birth and moderately less seven days after birth compared with the women who were not overweight.

They also found no significant differences in progesterone which helps maintain pregnancy and helps trigger milk production as soon as its levels fall after giving birth. Since fat tissue concentrates progesterone, the researchers had hypothesized this additional source of progesterone in overweight women might delay milk production. But the study did not support this theory.

Cornell News Service July 22, 2004

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