Energy-related influences on variation in breastfeeding duration among indigenous Maya women from Guatemala

Luseadra J. McKerracher, Mark Collard, Rachel M. Altman, Daniel Sellen, Pablo A. Nepomnaschy

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Citations (Scopus)
17 Downloads (Pure)


Objectives: The causes of variation in breastfeeding duration in humans are poorly understood, but life history factors related to maternal energetics drive much of the variation in lactation duration in nonhuman animals. With this in mind, we investigated whether four energy-related factors influence variation in breastfeeding duration in a non-industrial human population: 1) mortality risk during mother’s development (assessed via mother’s adult height), 2) reliance on nutrient-dense weaning foods, 3) access to and need for help with infant feeding and care (“allomaternal care”), and 4) maternal tradeoffs between current and future reproduction (measured via child’s birth order).

Materials and methods: The data pertain to 51 Kakchiquel-speaking Maya mothers and 283 children from a village in rural Guatemala. We developed a linear mixed model to evaluate the relationships between breastfeeding duration and the energy-related factors.

Results: Duration of breastfeeding was associated with two of the energy-related factors in the ways we predicted but not with the other two. Contrary to predictions, taller mothers breastfed for shorter periods and we found no evidence that weanling diet quality impacts breastfeeding duration. As predicted, women who had more help with infants breastfed for shorter periods, and later-born infants breastfed longer than earlier-born ones.

Discussion: The results regarding allomaternal care suggest that help reduces mothers’ lactation demands. The energy saved may be redirected to increasing fecundity or investment in other children. The birth order result suggests that children born to mothers nearing reproductive senescence receive higher levels of investment, which likely impacts children’s fitness.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)616-626
Number of pages11
JournalAmerican Journal of Physical Anthropology
Issue number4
Early online date3 Nov 2016
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2017

Bibliographical note


We offer our deepest gratitude to the women who made the field portion of this project possible—our exceptionally hard-working field research assistants and the study participants who generously and patiently shared their experiences with breastfeeding, parenting, and work. We also thank Dr. Mayron Martinez, Director of the VII Health Region in Sololá, Guatemala and his personnel for their support. In addition, we thank Dr. Nicole Berry (SFU), members of SFU's Human Evolutionary Studies Program, of SFU's Maternal and Child Health Lab, and of Aarhus University's Centre for Biocultural History for thoughtful comments during the early stages of developing this research. Our work was primarily supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (award number 727-2011-3333) and Simon Fraser University. The co-authors also receive financial support from the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (Discovery grant number 293140), the Canada Research Chairs Program, the British Columbia Knowledge Development Fund, the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the Dalla Lana Institute for Public Health, and the Michael Smith Foundation.


  • allocare
  • demography
  • lactation
  • life history
  • wean


Dive into the research topics of 'Energy-related influences on variation in breastfeeding duration among indigenous Maya women from Guatemala'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this