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Is suckling behaviour a useful predictor of milk intake? A review

journal contribution
posted on 2023-05-17, 06:51 authored by Elissa Cameron
In studies on mammalian parental investment, time spent suckling is often used as a predictor of the milk transferred from mother to infant. It is assumed that the rate of milk transfer is positively correlated with the time spent suckling. However, this assumption has not been tested and empirical studies show conflicting results. Nevertheless, in species in which suckling can readily be observed, time spent suckling is still used to measure milk transfer, although an increasing number of workers recognize that the measure is potentially inaccurate. A meta-analysis on studies that have correlated measures of time spent suckling with milk intake estimates based on weight gain revealed a weak positive relationship and significant heterogeneity between studies. Isotope-labelling techniques for the measurement of milk transfer independent of behaviour have been in use since the 1970s, particularly in studies of species in which suckling is difficult to observe. Only one study has attempted to correlate behavioural measures with independent isotope measures, and it found no relationship between the two measures. I suggest that researchers have avoided such a test as it is unlikely that a strong relationship will be found between milk transfer and suckling behaviour, and I discuss the various factors that confound the relationship and contribute to high heterogeneity between studies. Consequently, the assumption that milk transfer can be measured by time spent suckling has inadequate empirical foundation, and needs to be tested using isotope-labelling methods.


Publication title

Animal Behaviour








School of Natural Sciences


Academic Press Ltd Elsevier Science Ltd

Place of publication

24-28 Oval Rd, London, England, Nw1 7Dx

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