Lactation is the final phase of the reproductive cycle in mammals and is essential for optimum growth and development of the young mammals during early postnatal life.
In women, breastfeeding is the natural source of nourishment for babies. A considerable body of research in human lactation has focused on gaining an understanding of how breastmilk is uniquely adapted to the digestive, metabolic, developmental and pathogen defence requirements of the infant.
As a result of this research the World Health Organization (WHO) recently recommended that infants should be exclusively breastfed up to the age of six months. The lactating breast uses about 30% of the mother’s daily energy requirements and, indeed, has a higher energy requirement than the brain.
However, the clinical support for human lactation is almost entirely experience-based, and unlike all other significant organs in the body, there is no medical speciality for referral for the assessment of the function of the lactating mammary gland.
The Human Lactation Research Group aims to gain a greater understanding of the synthesis and secretion of breastmilk as well as the mechanisms of removal of milk from the breast by either the suckling infant or by expression with an electric breast pump. The understanding of these mechanisms will facilitate successful breastfeeding by providing an evidence base for the clinical management of human lactation.
To achieve this objective requires a fundamental understanding of the physiology and biochemistry of:
The research in human lactation, in particular, has required the development non-invasive methods such as bioluminescent assays for the investigation of metabolic changes occurring in the mammary secretory tissue and the development of a computerised breast measurement system for the measurement of the short-term rates of milk synthesis, the physiological storage capacity of the breast for milk and the degree of fullness of the breast in lactating women.
The Group's past research has encompassed the entire lactation cycle (pregnancy, initiation of lactation, established lactation and weaning) and has had a strong comparative theme with investigations in number of species (rats, rabbits, ewes, cows, sows and women).