Multiparity reveals the blunting effect of breastfeeding on physiological reactivity to psychological stress

J Neuroendocrinol. 2006 Jul;18(7):494-503. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2826.2006.01441.x.


Rat studies show that hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) responsiveness to physical and emotional stressors is attenuated during lactation, although situations evoking pup endangerment can supersede this phenomenon. In the human population, blunted cortisol responses are seen in primiparous breastfeeding compared to bottlefeeding mothers following physical stress, but not after psychosocial stress. It is currently unknown whether stressor salience (child-related versus nonrelated stressor) has a differential effect on cortisol reactivity as a function of infant feeding choice and whether HPA responses to stress could be modified by parity. We investigated the impact of infant feeding type and maternal parity on salivary cortisol and alpha-amylase response to stress in 5-20-week postpartum mothers using exposure to the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST) and to an emotional film evoking threats to a child. Analyses show that alpha-amylase responses were similar in all groups and for both types of stress, suggesting that sympathetic reactivity was independent of infant feeding type and parity. By contrast, cortisol response was affected by these variables. In primiparous mothers, cortisol reactivity to psychological stressors did not vary as a function of infant feeding type while, among multiparous mothers, breastfeeding was associated with reduced responsiveness to the TSST and child-related stressor. We speculate that changes in neural mechanisms occurring as a result of pregnancy and lactation and that modulate the HPA axis in women might be exacerbated with multiple repeats of the pregnancy/lactation period. This would serve to 'desensitise' stress circuits and reduce the overall stress-induced cortisol secretion after multiple births.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological
  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Area Under Curve
  • Bottle Feeding / psychology
  • Breast Feeding / psychology*
  • Emotions / physiology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / metabolism*
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System / physiology
  • Infant
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Lactation / metabolism
  • Lactation / psychology
  • Parity / physiology*
  • Pituitary-Adrenal System / physiology
  • Pregnancy
  • Reference Values
  • Saliva / metabolism
  • Statistics, Nonparametric
  • Stress, Psychological / metabolism*
  • alpha-Amylases / metabolism*


  • alpha-Amylases
  • Hydrocortisone