Detection of breastfeeding and weaning in modern human infants with carbon and nitrogen stable isotope ratios

Am J Phys Anthropol. 2006 Feb;129(2):279-93. doi: 10.1002/ajpa.20249.


Carbon ((13)C/(12)C) and nitrogen ((15)N/(14)N) stable isotope ratios were longitudinally measured in fingernail and hair samples from mother-infant pairs where infants were exclusively breastfed (n = 5), breast- and formula-fed (n = 2), or exclusively formula-fed (n = 1) from birth. All exclusively breastfed infants had a dual enrichment in carbon ( approximately 1 per thousand) and nitrogen ( approximately 2-3 per thousand) when compared to maternal values. In contrast, breast- and formula-fed subjects had reduced enrichments compared to exclusively breastfed subjects, and the exclusively formula-fed infant showed no increase in delta(13)C or delta(15)N values. This finding of a carbon trophic level effect in breastfeeding infants suggests that (13)C-enrichments of approximately 1 per thousand in archaeological populations are not necessarily the result of the consumption of C(4)-based weaning foods such as maize or millet. During the weaning process, the delta(13)C results for breastfed infants declined to maternal levels more rapidly than the delta(15)N results. This suggests that delta(13)C values have the potential to track the introduction of solid foods into the diet, whereas delta(15)N values monitor the length of time of breast milk consumption. These findings can be used to refine the isotopic analysis of breastfeeding and weaning patterns in past and modern populations.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study

MeSH terms

  • Age Factors
  • Breast Feeding*
  • California
  • Carbon Isotopes / analysis*
  • Diet*
  • Hair / chemistry
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Infant Formula / chemistry
  • Mass Spectrometry
  • Mothers
  • Nails / chemistry
  • Nitrogen Isotopes / analysis*
  • Weaning*


  • Carbon Isotopes
  • Nitrogen Isotopes