Does breastfeeding make moms more protective? A short lesson in defensive vs offensive behavior

Ever noticed that the studies which seem to get the most attention are often the least deserving of attention? Which then leads to me getting so riled up that I give them even more attention?

This is one of those studies. According to MSNBC’s article, “Breastfeeding makes new mothers mama bears”:

A study published in the September issue of Psychological Science found that nursing mothers are roughly twice as aggressive as bottle-feeding moms and women without children when confronted by a threat….researchers recruited 18 nursing mothers, 17 women who were feeding formula to their babies and 20 non-mothers. The women were told they’d be playing a competitive computer game against a research assistant posing as a rude and aggressive study participant. When the women “won” a round of the game, each got to choose how long and loudly they would blast their opponent with an annoying sound….After accounting for other differences, the researchers found that breast-feeding mothers delivered sound blasts to the rude opponent that were more than twice as loud and long as those administered by non-mothers and nearly twice as loud and long as those by bottle-feeding mothers.

Back in college, I made extra cash by being a guinea pig for psych department experiments. This was exactly the type of thing they’d have me do… play a computer game, and then have me rate my levels of anxiety, exhaustion, etc. I never took it seriously. In fact there was this one time, they had me dress up in a Barry Manilow Fan Club t-shirt and walk around the cafeteria; afterwards, I was asked to recall as many things as I could (like what they were serving for lunch, how many cashiers there were, the approximate number of people sitting at my table). The point was to see how embarrassment/shame would affect awareness/recall or something like that. But I totally freaked out the poor research assistant by proudly strutting through the cafeteria singing “Mandy” at the top of my lungs. Serves them right for hiring a theater major.

But I digress! Back to the study! The monumental “mama bear” study!!

Now, looking at the logistics of this thing, I’d agree that there was a strong correlation between breastfeeding mothers and aggression.What can be extrapolated from this seems to be where I and the media/study authors part ways, though. In my mind, this study proved that there was something about breastfeeding, or perhaps the type of woman who breastfed, which was related to aggression. While this could be a good thing in the animal kingdom, the whole free will/human consciousness theory sort of negates any real world applications of animal instinct. For instance, there’s a theory that yawning can serve as a “warning signal:” or sign of aggression in some animals (you know, because the mouth is open wide, teeth bared, all that). But can you imagine if a WWF star began yawning at his opponent? Probably not a highly effective threat. Although it might set off a chain reaction in the audience, and it would look pretty anachronistic to have a bunch of wrestling fans acting all sleepy and cute in the middle of a brawl….

So, it seems like a stretch that when they looked at the results, the researchers interpreted them as such:

The study suggests that lactation—and not just motherhood in general—kicks maternal protection into overdrive. During the confrontations, for instance, nursing moms exhibited lower blood pressure levels than the other two groups of women. That can actually dampen fear and stress responses and give them a little extra moxie to defend their offspring, the study concluded.

“We interpreted this as breastfeeding being nature’s way of helping moms calmly but effectively deal with potential threats,” Hahn-Holbrook said…“…This wouldn’t just come up in terms of predators but might also encourage a mom to run back into a burning building and save an infant. I definitely think that moms generally are inspired to do that, but I wonder if lactation would just give moms a little extra push and a little extra courage.”

How the hell does something as punitive as “punishing” an opponent get interpreted as a good thing?

It’s the difference between defensive and offensive behavior. Protecting your young against predators, running in to save them from a burning building… these are defensive behaviors. Playing an aggressive video game and then going “BOO-YAW” in your opponent’s face is offensive, in every sense of the word. But come to think of it, this wasn’t even measuring face-to-face aggressiveness. The whole interaction was done via a computer screen… how can we measure something so animal using something so artificial? It’s much easier to be aggressive when you have the advantage of anonymity. Kind of like when you bully someone for their choices on the internet.

Wait a minute…what if we interpreted these findings through a different lens?

Defending yourself against jerkface bosses who won’t let you pump at work, or morons who don’t want you to nurse in public, or ignorant healthcare providers who don’t respect your desire to prioritize breastfeeding… these are defensive, understandable, and often necessary behaviors.

Harassing bottle-feeding moms on the internet, trying to “punish” those who are using formula by insisting on limited information, sin taxes, or second-class citizen status, posting studies in misleading ways that freak out pregnant women and scare them into breastfeeding… these are aggressive behaviors, and sound to me an awful lot like yelling “BOO-YAW” in your opponent’s face, or whatever the virtual equivalent of that would be.

Maybe this study is deserving of more attention than I thought.

Suzanne Barston is a blogger and author of BOTTLED UP. Fearless Formula Feeder is a blog – and community – dedicated to infant feeding choice, and committed to providing non-judgmental support for all new parents. It exists to protect women from misleading or misrepresented “facts”; essentialist ideals about what mothers should think, feel, or do; government and health authorities who form policy statements based on ambivalent research; and the insidious beast known as Internetus Trolliamus, Mommy Blog Varietal.

Suzanne Barston – who has written posts on Fearless Formula Feeder.

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14 thoughts on “Does breastfeeding make moms more protective? A short lesson in defensive vs offensive behavior

  1. Sorry – I always post things before proofreading ((I wonder if FFs are bad proofreaders – someone should do a study…)
    In the attempt to not sound like a complete idiot, let me try again… 🙂

    Of course if the results were reversed, they would have said something along the lines of “breastfeeding moms are more serene and kind and FF moms are aggressive and self-centered”.

    I can't believe that someone spent time and money to do a “study” like this. Argh.

  2. Of course if the results were opposite, they would have said something along the line like “breastfeeding moms are more serene and kind and FF moms are aggressive and self-centered”.

    I can't believe that someone would have spent time and money to do a “study” like this. Argh.

  3. Mel-I hate that phrase too.

    Here's another question for these researchers with their crappy and ridiculous study: what about after weaning? Do parents become less protective of their children when the mothers aren't lactating? And what about Dad? He never lactates, so that would never be a factor in measuring protectiveness for him…if one group of fathers is more protective, there is another reason. But yeah, the whole horn experiment is pretty stupid.

    Maybe use some kind of doll stand in…put the doll in harm's way (not a real fire or anything, just some situation where a parent would need to be protective) and see what the mothers do. It could even be a computer simulation, like on the computer, a dog attacks the baby, and the mother will cause an avatar to react. Then, go back over the questionnaire which was given at the beginning, which includes whether or not the mother is nursing, but also other information like how many children the woman has, does she have a partner, were any of her children ever in danger, is she infertile, education level, socioeconomic level,etc. Blood pressure monitoring during the test, heart rate might be interesting, but are more indicators of stress rather than protectiveness. Also competitiveness does not necessarily equate with protectiveness.

    Ultimately, that is a difficult quality to measure. I'd guess that 99% of parents are very protective of their children, and would put themselves in harm's way to save/protect the children. And if there are actual quantifiable differences in protectiveness, there are probably many factors contributing to that, that have nothing to do with infant feeding.

  4. I saw this one too on facebook. I have no words for how utterly absurd and useless this is. And what does it tell us-NOTHING! I echo posts from previous weeks-instead of putting time, effort and money into studies like this, why not focus research and other resources on A. making breastfeeding easier, more convenient, etc. for mothers who WANT to do it, and B. continuing to improve formula as there are ALWAYS going to be mothers who need or want to use it?

    It's just another roundabout jab at formula feeders-trying to say they are worse mothers, don't care about their children, etc. Seriously-when will this crap end? All it does is make me want NOTHING to do with breastfeeding and hope my supsicions that I have breasts with insufficient glandular tissue are dead on.

  5. Can I just say I hate the phrase “Mama Bear”? I find it so stupid and degrading for some reason.

    The study is interesting but I have to say, the first thing it made me think about was all of the offensive behavior of extreme lactivists. Hmm…

  6. So, how you toot your horn at somebody after you win a video game is an indicator of how protective you are of your children? Extrapolate much?

  7. Could also just be good old-fashioned correlation – aggressive mama-bear types are also those who have been willing (able? pressured? driven?) to invest 7-12 hours of their days to feed their babies. Classic behavioral psych, isn't it, that you feel more committed to a cause you have already invested time and behavior in?

  8. My husband, at the time not yet a father and most certainly not lactating, ran into a burning neighborhood to save our dog. Equating lactating with running into a burning building to save a child is insanely offensive, quite frankly. I am protective of my son, probably to a fault, particularly when it comes to fire, and lactating had nothing to do with it… not to mention that I highly doubt my playing a video game would be able to demonstrate that level of protectiveness or my neuroses about burning buildings.

  9. This study left an extremely bad taste in my mouth. I am a black belt in Taekwondo. It is drilled into us that we have a higher level of knowledge of self-defense, and anyone who has that knowledge also carries higher responsibility. Just as a police officer is expected not to lose it when apprehending a criminal, we're expected not to lose it when defending ourselves. It's one thing to strike someone to keep them from hurting you, but you can't kick them when they're clearly not a threat anymore, you can't shoot someone in the back as they're running away, you can't hurt them just to punish them for daring to attack you. For civilian self-defense, the goal is to neutralize the threat and ***get away.*** Obviously police have different goals, but police brutality is an ongoing issue.

    I was physically ill at the description of what the breastfeeding moms in the study did. This is not something to be celebrated. This is an area of serious concern. Celebrating cruelty is not a mark of a civilized society. It does not mean these women are more protective of their children. If anything, it might mean that they're LESS protective, because they might be willing to put their kids in harm's way to punish someone who attacks them, instead of prioritizing getting their children away from an attacker and into a safe place. It might mean they are LESS protective of their children's mental health as well as physical; if a breastfeeding mother goes on a verbal rampage, doing the verbal equivalent of shooting someone in the back as they're running away instead of handling criticism assertively and respectfully, what kind of lessons does that teach her child? That a total lack of empathy is acceptable, and that verbal abuse is a sign of toughness, a good thing?

    The conclusions of this study are so wrong, so backward, it's hard for me to put it into words. To say that formula feeding parents are not as protective tells me that the authors are not prioritizing healthy self-defense. They are prioritizing punishment–which is not self-defense at all. They are prioritizing cruelty over proper caring for children. If anything, this article makes breastfeeding seem like a much worse option to me, and does nothing to promote breastfeeding as a safe, healthy, positive experience.

  10. Oh, and from personal experience, having a BABY made me a defensive momma bear—NOT nursing! And since when is someone playing a game against you a real threat?? UGH! This is so ridiculous!!

  11. ha haa haa! Since when does blaring a horn at someone mean you're protective???? Maybe it means that breastfeeding women are more pissed off 24/7 and want to take it out on someone–OR–maybe it means that breastfeeding women love the idea of someone listening to horns–OR–maybe it means breastfeeding women are more competitive and sore losers–OR–maybe it means formal feeders don't care about winning or losing–OR–MAYBE IT MEANS PEOPLE SHOULDN'T PUBLISH BULLSHIT STUDIES THAT ARE INSANELY STUPID!!!!

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