by Shea Serrano
Q: Can Men Breastfeed?
A: Odd as it seems, men can lactate. In their 1896 book, Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine, Dr. George Gould and Dr. Walter Pyle recount several occurrences of men breastfeeding their young. The stories include a sailor who put his son to his breast to quiet him and started producing milk; a South American peasant who sustained his child with his own breast milk during his wife's illness; and a Chippewa man who put his infant to his breast following the death of his wife and produced enough milk to rear the child.
The phenomenon hasn't stopped. In 2002, a Sri Lankan man named B. Wijeratne lost his wife and was left to care for their 18-month-old daughter. When the child refused powdered milk, Wijeratne tried something different. "Unable to see her cry, I offered my breast," Wijeratne told a Sri Lankan newspaper. "That's when I discovered I could breastfeed."
Wijeratne isn't alone.
All men can breastfeed, because they possess the two most vital components for lactating—mammary glands and pituitary glands. Mammary glands, which produce milk, are present in all mammals. In fact, they're one of our defining characteristics. In some cases, such as with mice, the mammary glands of the males are too underdeveloped to function. In humans, however, they're fully formed in both sexes, complete with breastfeeding ducts and nipples.
Of course, for a human to actually breastfeed, those mammary glands have to be activated somehow. In women, this usually happens during pregnancy, when the brain's pituitary gland starts releasing large amounts of a hormone called prolactin, which prepares the breasts to produce milk.
All men produce small amounts of prolactin during their lifetimes. It's released after orgasms, for example, and may be responsible for the associated feelings of satisfaction and relaxation. But typically, it's never present in large enough quantities for men to breastfeed. Under the appropriate psychological circumstances, however, the mind can demand that the body produce more of the hormone. This often happens to mothers who adopt children and suddenly find they can nurse. And as Dr. Gould and Dr. Pyle have documented, there's a long history of it happening in men, too.
This article was written by Shea Serrano and originally appeared in the September-October issue of mental_floss magazine.