Becoming a mom in the midst of a breastfeeding movement has meant that various social media outlets regularly tried to educate me about the topic. As a researcher, I stubbornly refused to repeat the claims that “breastfed babies have higher IQ” or that “all the baby needs in the first 12 months is breast milk” without checking their sources.
This curiosity led me to Charlotte Kuperwasser, PhD, a nationally and internationally recognized expert in mammary gland biology. Charlotte is a Professor of Developmental, Molecular, and Chemical Biology and the Director of the Raymond & Beverly Sackler Convergence Laboratory at Tufts University School of Medicine. She is also a mom of a 2.5 year old daughter. We chatted about the science of human breast as well as about Charlotte’s journey into parenthood.
In the most lay terms possible, could you describe the anatomy of a breast?
A good visual to describe what the breast looks like is a large tree, but instead of leaves at the ends of the terminating small branches, there are bunches of grapes. Also at the base of the trunk where the tree meets the earth, this is where you would find the nipple meeting the breast tree. Essentially, the breast is a complex network of branched ducts (tubes) that terminate with small sacks (alveoli). This tree-like structure is embedded within the connective fatty tissue of the breast.
What a beautiful metaphor! Putting your scientist hat back on, could you tell me how much do we know about the human breast?
We know a lot about the anatomy and biology of the breast in mice yet, we know considerably less about the human breast. How much of the information in mice can be translated and is applicable to the human breast is only now beginning to emerge. In fact, it is amazing how much we still don’t know about the human breast.
While we know a great deal in mice about how the breast changes during pregnancy, lactation and involution (weaning), remarkably we don’t have a very good understanding about these changes in the human breast.
In addition, we know next to nothing about the biochemistry of human milk and how it is produced. We know more information about milk formation in cows than we do in humans. We know little about how calcium, nutrients, or antibodies gets into milk; we know little about the molecular and chemical make up of milk. We don’t even know what influences its consistency, its composition, how the composition evolves over time, how the milk flow rate and ejection rates are regulated, how and why milk production varies among mothers; how long it takes to make milk; and what type and nature of signaling and communication within and between cells is involved in the process. Essentially, all we know that the hormone Prolactin is necessary to stimulate milk production and the hormone oxytocin is necessary to eject the milk into the ducts and down the ducts (oxytocin stimulates the little “grapes” in the breast (alveoli) to contract and eject the milk). This is a rudimentary understanding at best and there is so much we still have not studied.
Some think that breastfeeding is a simple process and that women are born to know how to do it - but in reality, it is often a challenging time for mothers. What do you wish people knew about breastfeeding?
There has been a sea-change in our society regarding the value of breastfeeding, the so-called “breast is best” movement. Women today have more support and encouragement around breastfeeding than prior generations. With that said, what is still under appreciated by the general public is that breastfeeding is really hard. Before I became a mother and breast fed, I used to think: put a baby on and you are done. It’s not that simple. While you hear that breastfeeding is a process that both mother and child learn together and can be painful at first, what you don’t hear is what happens after the learning curve. Breastfeeding is physically and mentally draining and can actually alter your ability to function. Women are literally chronically depleted of the nutrients that are needed to maintain intellectual stamina and physical energy. This perspective is still not accurately portrayed when describing the effects of breastfeeding.
What do you say about the trend to breastfeed for a really long time?
It’s a very personal decision and should be based on what's best for the mom and child. We need to stop having a polarizing discussion on this issue. I breastfed exclusively and on demand until my daughter was almost 2; this was the choice our family felt was best for us, but I understand why not everyone can or may want to do it this way. As a scientist, I examined the mothering instincts and behaviors of other animals for cues about how I might want to breastfeed. In nature, all mammals breastfeed on demand yet this clearly and naturally adjusts based on the age of the young. You don’t see mammals nursing their young beyond a certain age. Therefore, there is a defined natural timeframe for breastfeeding--usually it stops when babies have a full set of teeth. But again, it’s a personal decision what that time is for any woman and her child – and I am not in a position to say or judge.
How did motherhood influence how you work?
I waited to become a mother. I established my career in my 20s - 30s and made sure I could be as successful as I could during that time so when I did decide to have my child, I would not feel as though I had to give up my career. Hence, I had my daughter at 39 and while I was prepared for the mind shift, I was not prepared for the all-encompassing life shift that would go along with it. You hear that you can make things work but when you were once a workaholic, being a mom causes you to go through withdrawal. Motherhood basically changed my life and with that the amount of work I can do and how I do it. My daughter is 2.5 years old and now we are at a place where things are great. I can juggle work and parenting—very efficient at work and organized at home. But this certainly was not the case for the first 20 months.
I chose to breastfeed exclusively: and as I said, it was the most physically and mentally taxing experience. Pumping does not help or change this fact. Breastfeeding was the best and the worst experience, and if I had to do it again, I wouldn't change a thing. I don’t regret delaying motherhood but it may have been physically easier in my 20s. Many women chose different trajectories and I don’t judge anyone for their choices. This is how I chose to do mothering and work.