Well, why else do men have nipples?
A young father aiming to take parental equality a step further by breastfeeding his children has created a storm of controversy in his native Sweden
WHEN RAGNAR BENGTSSON (26) signed up for an unusual experiment to be aired on prime-time TV and documented for the coming months, with his blog, he little realised that his desire to produce male breast milk would result in a stream of condemnation and vicious reaction.
The father from Stockholm, who has started to stimulate his breasts with a pump in a bid to produce milk believes that if he succeeds it could mark an important breakthrough for stay-at-home fathers.
Sweden enjoys one of the most progressive approaches to paid parenthood, allowing both mother and father to divide statutory paid leave of 12 months, plus an extra three months at a reduced rate of their salaries, as they wish. Since nearly all couples work full time, it is up to them to decide who stays at home, and for how long, with the newborn child.
An economics student at Stockholm University with a working partner and a two-year-old son (who is not involved in the experiment), Bengtsson is pumping his breasts at three-hourly intervals every day until December, monitored by a popular TV programme, The Aschberg Show. Progress is charted on his blog, which translates as: “The Milkman – One Drop at Time” on the station’s website. “There have been a lot of strong reactions and some people think it is completely sick,” he said.
His comments that he would not always be in a position to pump in private caused particular offence to some, including students. “I am going to have to pull out the pump sometimes during lectures but it really doesn’t bother me if it makes people uncomfortable. If they have issues with it, that’s their problem,” he declared. So far, the university authorities have been unavailable for comment on the Swede’s highly unusual plans.
Television and newspaper websites have received an ongoing stream of angry messages accusing him of carrying on an unnatural act, embarrassing Sweden and being an attention freak. But according to TV8 producer Mikael Ekman, “he is very sincere and serious. We wanted to mount the experiment to see if a man could actually breastfeed, to push out the barriers and introduce viewers to new possibilities, and it is certainly not a stunt. When we found Ragnar we discovered that he had toyed with the idea of trying to breastfeed for some years.”
“To some, the idea of men breastfeeding their children might appear absurd and even abnormal but there are practical benefits in fathers exploiting the opportunity to nurse and we also were anxious to pose the question: why do men have nipples, and perhaps find the answer. The notion of men breastfeeding has created a surprising level of controversy here in Sweden, stirring up all sorts of emotions in women, who reacted violently against the idea, but anthropologists have found plenty of evidence of male breastfeeding so it is not such a big deal,” Ekman told The Irish Times.
While some experts believe that successful male lactation can be induced only with chemicals, there is evidence of men who have been able to breastfeed. In theory it is possible as men possess the two most vital components for lactating – mammary glands and pituitary glands – and when the mammary glands are stimulated by a baby’s sucking they can actually produce milk.
The professor of endocrinology at Karolinska University Institute in Stockholm, Sigbritt Werner, told the Stockholm online newspaper the Localthat it should be possible for Bengtsson to produce a little milk after three or four months. “Women have been bathed in oestrogen during a nine-month pregnancy, so obviously it takes some time,” she points out. “But if he works on it regularly he will likely notice a layer of tissue forming beneath the areola and it should be possible to produce enough of the hormone prolactin to cause lactation.”
Prof Jared Diamond, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Evolution of Human Sexualitybelieves the potential advantages of male lactation are numerous. It would promote a type of emotional bonding of a father to a child now available only to women, he argues. “Many mothers in first-world societies have already become unavailable for breastfeeding whether because of jobs, illness or lactation failure. Breastfed babies acquire stronger immune defences and are less susceptible to numerous diseases. Male lactation could provide those benefits to babies if the mother is unavailable.”
Prof Werner believes men should use their breasts to comfort their children, rather than try to breastfeed them. “Men often have trouble finding things and if the mother is out the child is screaming and they can’t find the soother I am sure there are a lot of men who give their baby their breasts,” she says.
“Healthy children know instinctively that a breast has a dual function – one gives them milk, the other warmth and a cosy bond. Men don’t need to strive to produce milk but they should get closer to their children, offering them their breasts in the same way as women.”