Mothers in numerous species exhibit heightened aggression in defense of their young. This shift typically coincides with the duration of lactation in nonhuman mammals, which suggests that human mothers may display similarly accentuated aggressiveness while breast feeding. Here we report the first behavioral evidence for heightened aggression in lactating humans. Breast-feeding mothers inflicted louder and longer punitive sound bursts on unduly aggressive confederates than did formula-feeding mothers or women who had never been pregnant. Maternal aggression in other mammals is thought to be facilitated by the buffering effect of lactation on stress responses. Consistent with the animal literature, our results showed that while lactating women were aggressing, they exhibited lower systolic blood pressure than did formula-feeding or neverpregnant women while they were aggressing. Mediation analyses indicated that reduced arousal during lactation may disinhibit female aggression. Together, our results highlight the contributions of breast feeding to both protecting infants and buffering maternal stress.
Hahn-Holbrook, J., Holt-Lunstad, J., Holbrook, C., Coyne, S.M., & Lawson, T. (2011). Maternal defense: Breastfeeding heightens aggression by reducing stress. Psychological Science, 22, 1288-1295. doi: 10.1177/0956797611420729