Field of Science

Bottle feeding simulates child loss

ResearchBlogging.orgThere is much reason to be critical of the field of evolutionary psychology, not because it isn't obvious at some level that the human mind is an evolved organ, but rather because much of the research comes down to evolutionary just-so explanations of otherwise interesting studies of human psychology. When, on the other hand, this process is reversed, it does have scientific merit. The right way to do it is to start hypothesizing based on our evolutionary history, and then set forth to do experiments that may reject or validate these hypotheses.

An example of that is a study of the effects of bottle feeding. Based on what we know of our evolutionary history, the only reason that a new mother would prematurely cease breastfeeding her infant would be in the case of the infant's death. Bottle feeding had not yet been invented. Consequently, a team of scientists at the Department of Psychology, State University of New York in Albany surmised that bottle feeding mimics this loss, and that mothers who breastfeed would be more likely than average to experience postpartum depression.

The researchers found this hypothesis to hold true in a study of 50 new mothers:
We recently completed a study of over 50 mothers recruited through local pediatric offices at 4–6 weeks postpartum [25]. Consistent with previous reports, we found that those who bottle fed their babies scored significantly higher on the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale than those engaged in breastfeeding. The increased risk of depression among mothers who relied on bottle feeding held true even after we controlled for such things as age, education, income, and the mother’s relationship with her current partner.
The authors don't label their study as evolutionary psychology, but as evolutionary medicine, and I commend the emergence of this new discipline. What can it bring to the table, then? The authors conclude that
Bottle feeding practices and hospital procedures that simulate child loss may increase the risk of postpartum depression and fall within a growing number of medical issues that could benefit from an evolutionary perspective.
[The paper is published in a journal owned by Elsevier, and is not free. If you want a copy of the PDF, let me know and I will send you one.]

Gallup Jr., G., Nathan Pipitone, R., Carrone, K., & Leadholm, K. (2009). Bottle feeding simulates child loss: Postpartum depression and evolutionary medicine Medical Hypotheses DOI: 10.1016/j.mehy.2009.07.016


  1. What about the bonding advantage for the father?

    Let us assume that indeed bottle feeding simulates child loss... btw. have they compared the depression level of the 50 tested individuals, with the depression level of 50 mothers who actually encountered child loss. I'd say that bottle feeding is a rather poor simulation of childloss...

    But we forget the advantage of bottle feeding: I (as a father) was actually able to feed the babies much earlier than the comparable fathers who have breast fead babies. Which I could clame gave me a much better bonding experience! Besides that equal opportunity campaigners would support that both parents take care in the same activities.

    We should invest in the following studie: Adult human males retaliate and suppress breast feeding females more often than bottle feeding females, due to breast envy....

    Cheers Arend

  2. Either way, I think the subject of breast envy needs to be studied further.

  3. Did the study say anything about whether the bottle-feeding mothers had planned to bottle-feed? There's a huge amount of 'breast is best' pressure in some areas, with mothers who choose/have to bottle-feed guilt-tripped by health visitors and made to feel that they're injuring their child. Also, n=50 isn't a great sample size when controlling for multiple other factors.

    I completely agree with you on the subject of ev. psych. but Medical Hypotheses isn't the first place I'd go looking for actual data.

  4. Hmmm. Interesting, but what about the ancient profession of wet nursing?

    What about tribal cultures where whoever is available nurses a hungry child?

  5. Breast envy?

    I've got a one week old at home and the breast pump we've used in the past isn't here yet.

    That said, I'm not crying (or losing sleep) about it - can't say I'm particularly envious of the 3am shift.

  6. No believes me when I say I'd like to try to be pregnant either.


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