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Wednesday, 24 April, 2002, 18:03 GMT 19:03 UK
Breast feeding sends mating signals
Mother with baby
Sexual signals may be sent out to other women
Breast feeding mothers and newborn babies emit odours that may boost the sexual desires of other women, a study suggests.

Hormones produced by breast feeding women and babies send out signals which are picked up by others, steering them towards greater sexual desire and fantasies, say researchers.

In the US study, smells associated with breast feeding increased feelings of sexual intimacy in childless women volunteers.

The findings add to the growing body of evidence that our natural smells affect others at a subconscious level.

It is a mystery why this influenced their behaviour, but the researchers suggest it may be a way that women signal to each other that the environment is a good one in which to reproduce.

If women get the pheromones from breast feeding women, they might not be that different from people who have just had an orgasm

Dr Ros Bramwell, psychologist
Researchers from the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia and a team at the University of Chicago, asked 26 nursing mothers to wear absorbent pads in their bras and under their armpits, according to an article in New Scientist.

Another 45 women, who had never given birth, then spent the next three months undertaking a "sniff challenge".

For a month, all the women sniffed control pads with a phosphate buffer on them, four times a day.

For the final two months of the study, some women were randomly chosen to sniff pads with the breast feeding compounds, while others continued with the control scent.

Each day, the volunteers measured their temperature, took a urine sample and recorded sexual activity.

While the women smelling the breast feeding compounds did not report increased sexual activity, they did report significantly heightened and more enduring sexual desire and fantasies.

Fertility influence

Study co-ordinator Julie Mennella said: "The data are pretty striking."

She concludes the chemicals encourage other women to reproduce, and that they may have evolved as a signal that the environment is suitable for raising young.

She said that in many cultures, newly-wed young women are encouraged to spend time around new mothers to increase their own chances of having children.

"I wonder if these cultures have tapped into something," she said.

She wants to investigate whether the breast feeding smell impacts on fertility.

Senior lecturer in psychology at Liverpool University, Dr Ros Bramwell, said this study may help to make breast feeding more socially acceptable.

However, on a scientific level, she says this report reinforces previous studies on the behaviour of female hormones.

She suggests women often experience something close to an orgasm when they are breast feeding and produce hormones associated with orgasm, including oxytocin and prolactine.

She said: "Arguably, if women get the pheromones from breast feeding women, they might not be that different from people who have just had an orgasm.

"It's nice to see this kind of research being done and very particularly suggesting that breast feeding is sexy."

She said more research needs to be carried out to assess whether such signals would affect fertility among women finding it difficult to conceive.

See also:

25 Oct 01 | Health
Pill 'may blunt sexual urge'
26 Jun 01 | Health
Sex a turn-off for many UK women
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