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Breast-feeding promotes wound healing

Rat study may fuel breast-versus-bottle debate.

Oxytocin, which prompts lactation, lowers stress hormones. Credit: © GettyImages

Breast-feeding may help the scars of childbirth fade. Lactation speeds wound healing and lowers stress in rats, researchers told this week's Society for Neuroscience Annual meeting in New Orleans, Louisiana.

"It's quite possible that mothers who breast-feed their newborns will have accelerated healing of tissue damage compared with mothers who bottle-feed," says Tara Craft from Ohio State University in Columbus, who studied the rats.

The results could fuel the breast-versus-bottle debate. Breast-is-best advocates claim that breast-fed babies have fewer allergies, infections and stomach upsets. Maternal health benefits are often overlooked, however. Natural and caesarean births can leave substantial wounds, says Craft, who now plans to study wound healing in human mothers.

Craft's team gave rats small skin wounds the day after they littered. Five days later, their injuries were 30% smaller than those of animals prevented from breast-feeding.

Hormones may be involved. After a mother gives birth, her prolactin and oxytocin levels increase. Prolactin boosts the number of circulating immune cells, which may speed repair, Craft says. Oxytocin, which prompts lactation, lowers the levels of stress hormones.

“The immune system is sensitive to just about every hormone in the body Bruce McEwen , Rockefeller Universitys”

"The immune system is sensitive to just about every hormone in the body, so oxytocin may well be involved," says Bruce McEwen from the Rockefeller University in New York, who studies the effects of hormones on the brain.

Oxytocin is also thought to help animals form social bonds. Rodents that live in pairs are less vulnerable to stress and mend more quickly than do single animals, says Craft, citing this as further evidence for the hormone's involvement in wound healing.

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Pilcher, H. Breast-feeding promotes wound healing. Nature (2003). https://doi.org/10.1038/news031110-11

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