What Mammal Mamas Teach Us About Breastfeeding

Breastfeeding can be challenging for new moms. We know it’s the best choice for our babies, and we know it’s natural, but that doesn’t mean it’s always easy. Mammals of all sorts have been coping with different struggles to rear their young on mother’s milk for hundreds of years, so as humans we're not alone! From bats to zebras, many mammals breastfeeding their young. What can we learn from mammals' breastfeeding habits? Maybe the best lesson we learn is that while breastfeeding has its challenges, it’s a defining characteristic of what it means to be a mammal.


New Polar Bear Moms Fast for Months


Image Credit: If My Mom Were A Platypus by Dia L. Michels, illustrated by Andrew Barthelmes

Do you know that gnawing, never ending hunger you have while breastfeeding? Many breastfeeding mamas report a constant hunger that they’re never able to satisfy. This makes sense, because your child is drawing nutrition from your body! Pregnancy may be over, but you’re still, quite literally, eating for two. Did you know breastfeeding can burn up to 1000 extra calories each day? Plus, while breastfeeding (and sleeping irregularly), your body produces the hormone Prolactin, which causes increased levels of hunger.


Now, imagine breastfeeding without eating anything for months. This is the reality for polar bear moms, who fast for up to eight months while they care for their cubs. While pregnant, a polar bear digs a “maternity den” under the snow where she gives birth and keeps her cubs for the first few months of their life. Cubs are born tiny and hairless, and the body heat of the animals inside of the small enclosed space helps keep the newborns warm. In order to keep the den sealed and the heat inside, the mother polar bear does not eat until her cubs are strong enough to leave the den and make the long journey to the sea ice, where mom kills a seal and finally eats.


Naked Mole Rats Produce Giant Litters

Here’s a rule of thumb you may not know: you can typically tell how many young are in a given species’ litter by counting their nipples and dividing by two. Humans have two nipples and typically one baby per pregnancy. This ensures there’s always enough milk to go around.

However, this isn’t true across the board. Naked mole rats have 10 nipples, but have been known to have up to 33 babies in a single litter. Without enough nipples to go around, naked mole rat moms must be constantly nursing a handful of their young! If you feel like you’re constantly nursing, just imagine how much worse it’d be with 30+ newborns!


Blue Whale Babies Grow Eight Pounds an Hour


Image Credit: Barcroft Animals

For the first seven months of their lives, blue whale calves will consume 100-150 gallons of milk each day! Aren’t you glad you don’t have to match that demand?


Of course, blue whales are the world’s largest mammals. Newborn blue whale calves are 23 feet long (that’s the length of two minivans laid end-to-end), and weigh the same as an adult elephant. For the first few weeks of life they put on eight pounds an hour. The mother’s mammary glands are nearly 5 feet long and weigh almost 250 pounds each. To preserve their sleek, aqua-dynamic shape, mama whales' nipples are hidden in layers of blubber.  When babies nuzzle against the blubber, milk squirts out for them to enjoy.


Orangutans Nurse for Many Years

Image Credit: Cuddled and Carried by Dia L. Michels, illustrated by Mike Speiser

The World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding for two years or more, which may seem like an eternity for moms who are struggling to find their breastfeeding groove. Although nursing can feel magical when everything clicks into place, chapped nipples and clogged milk ducts are enough to make moms feel like weaning can’t come soon enough.


Incredibly, some mammal moms nurse for four times as long! Orangutans, the largest type of ape, spend the longest amount of time breastfeeding and caring for their young. It’s not uncommon for an 8-year-old orangutan to continue to nurse.



Lions Share Breastfeeding Responsibilities


Most mammals only nurse from their own mothers.  One exception is the lion.  Since lions live in prides they are all close blood relatives and emotionally attached.  Lionesses will nurse any of the cubs in the pride regardless of whether she gave birth to the little one. Can you imagine asking your neighbor to nurse your child while you run to the store?


Hooded Seals Only Nurse for a Few Days


Image Credit: Imagur

Hooded seals have the shortest breastfeeding journey of only around four days.  Because seals have to nurse out of the water, they rely on dangerous floating ice as their lactation room.  The ice is unstable so childhood lasts for less than a week before these pups are on their own. Even though breastfeeding can be trying at times, at least humans get to enjoy this amazing bonding experience for more than four days!


What do you make of these mammal lactation facts? Are you glad to have breastfeeding behind you or would you want to nurse for 8 years? Let us know what you think in the comments below!

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