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November 15, 2012--------News Archive Return to: News Alerts

Among 72 mothers in rural Kenya, women with sons generally gave richer milk
(2.8 percent fat compared with 0.6 percent for daughters).

Poor women, however, favored daughters with creamier milk (2.6 versus 2.3 percent).

WHO Child Growth Charts


Boys And Girls May Get Different Breast Milk

Mother's milk may be the first food, but it is not created equal. In humans and other mammals, milk composition changes depending on the infant's gender and whether conditions are good or bad. Understanding those differences gives insight into human evolution

Researchers at Michigan State University and other
institutions found among 72 mothers in rural Kenya,
women with sons generally gave richer milk (2.8
percent fat compared with 0.6 percent for daughters).

Poor women, however, favored daughters
with creamier milk (2.6 versus 2.3 percent).

These findings, published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology in September, 2012, echo previous work that showed milk composition varying with infant gender in gray seals and red deer and with infant gender and the mother's condition in rhesus macaques. The new study also follows findings that affluent, well-nourished moms in Massachusetts produced more energy-dense milk for male infants.

Together the studies provide support for a 40-year-old theory in evolutionary biology. The Trivers-Willard hypothesis* states that natural selection favors parental investment in daughters when times are hard and in sons when times are easy.

The imbalance should be greatest in polygamous
societies, in which men can father offspring
with multiple wives, such as in Kenyan villages.

In those societies, a son can grow to be a strong,
popular male with many wives and children,
or he can end up with neither.

Well-off parents who can afford to invest in sons
should do so because their gamble could give
them many grandchildren.

Conversely, poor parents should not heavily invest in sons because it is unlikely to pay off—their offspring start at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. For those families, daughters are a safer bet because as long as they survive to adulthood, they are likely to produce young.

The new study is “exciting and enthralling,” says Robert Trivers, an evolutionary biologist at Rutgers University and co-author of the hypothesis, who was not involved in the recent work. “It is a Trivers-Willard effect I wouldn't have the guts to predict.”

Even beyond fat and protein, other milk
components might vary in humans,
says Katie Hinde, an assistant professor
in human evolutionary biology
at Harvard University.

She has found higher levels of cortisol,
a hormone that regulates metabolism,
in rhesus macaque milk for male infants.

Her work shows that milk differences
could change infant behavior and
might affect growth and development.

“Only half the story is what the mom's producing,” Hinde says. “The other [half] is how the infant uses the milk.” These findings could have implications for formula, which could be tweaked to optimize development for both boys and girls.

Original article: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=boys-and-girls-may-get-different-breast-milk

*Trivers–Willard hypothesis
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

In evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology, the Trivers–Willard hypothesis,[1] formally proposed by Robert Trivers and Dan Willard, predicts greater investment in males by parents in good conditions and greater investment in females by parents in poor conditions (relative to parents in good condition). The reasoning for this prediction is as follows: assume that parents have information on the sex of their offspring and can influence their survival differentially. While pressures exist to maintain sex ratios at 50%, evolution will favor local deviations from this if one sex has a likely greater reproductive pay-off than is usual.