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How Do Dolphins Breastfeed Underwater?

I was lucky enough to be in Bali recently on a dolphin-watching trip. I wanted to know how dolphins breastfeed their young underwater, so I asked one of the guides. His answer left me with some questions, so I looked into this further when I got back to shore.

Dolphins have inverted nipples inside mammary slits. When the calf is ready to feed, they dive underneath the mother and nudge the mammary slits. The nipple is released, and the mother provides milk to the calf that rolls its tongue into a u-shaped tube.

I found this interesting and wanted to find out some more information. If you’re going to find out more, please read on.

If you or someone you know loves dolphins, check out these great dolphin gifts on Amazon by clicking here.

How Do Dolphins Breastfeed Underwater? 

All mammals have evolved and developed different, unique mechanisms that enable them to survive in their environments. In the case of dolphins, they have their means of breastfeeding underwater. Whales are surrounded by water, and breastfeeding in this environment is not as easy as it would be for a land mammal.

Dolphins have two mammary slits on their underside, with an inverted nipple inside. The nipples are not the same as terrestrial mammals with protruding nipples, and young dolphins can not feed at any time as land mammals can.

Whales often swim close to the shore. Find out why here

When the dolphin calf is ready to feed, they dive underneath the mother and nudge the mammary slits. This signals to the mother that the calf is ready to provide. This also works as a way to stimulate the mammary slit to release the nipples.

Whereas the young of land mammals will regulate the amount of milk they take from their mother, marine mammals are different.

Dolphin calves do not control how much milk they take, but the mother does. The mother squirts the milk from their teats into the calf’s mouth.  

The young calf wraps its mouth around the teat, rolling its tongue into a u-shaped tube. The rolled tongue is pressed onto the upper palate and placed around the nipple.

This ensures that the milk is channeled directly into the mouth and that no fluid is lost in the water. The dolphin’s mammary glands have muscles that contract and then shoot milk straight into the mouth.

The mother will lay on her side during the first few weeks after birth to help the young find the mammary glands.  After the first few weeks, the calf will spread on its side to drink the milk, and the mother slows down their swimming.  

One of the main reasons dolphins can successfully breastfeed underwater is due to the milk’s consistency. Whale milk has an unusually high-fat content.

The high-fat content makes the milk thick enough to pass through the water. High-fat concentration in the milk is necessary because the adult female whale can eject liquid into the calf’s mouth without dissolving into the water around their lips.

If you want to know how whales breastfeed underwater, I have written an article you can find here.

Do Dolphins Produce Milk?

Dolphins are sea mammals and possess the typical characteristics of all mammals. This means they have mammary glands and produce milk to feed their young. 

With all species of dolphins, the calves require plenty of milk for them to grow and stay healthy. Generally, a baby dolphin consumes milk every 20 minutes, 24 hours a day. As they get older, this happens less frequently.  

Dolphins have been seen to nurse their young for up to four and a half years, generally with a minimum of two years.

Did you know there are 16 species of dolphins in North America? Find out what they are here.

Do Dolphins Have Nipples?

Dolphins do have nipples, but they are not extended on the outside as in humans. Dolphins spend their entire life inside the water, so nipples and breasts outside would not be the best place for them. Dolphin nipples are enclosed within folds of skin referred to as mammary slits. 

How Does Dolphin Milk Taste?

The milk of a dolphin has a very thick consistency. The thickness is attributed to the high-fat concentration reaching 108 to 180 gm per liter. The milk is white with a yellow, ish tinge and a creamy consistency.

The taste is oily and lacks sweetness, and has a fishy odor. (Please don’t ask me how I know!!)

How Long Do Dolphins Breastfeed?

Baby dolphins need milk to survive and grow. Once they are large enough to survive without the milk, they will change to a diet of mainly fish.

Most dolphins will stay with their mothers for at least three years. Some calves will nurse up to six or even ten in some cases. Calves can grow extremely fast in their first year, reaching seven times as large as when firstborn due to the milk’s high-fat content.  

Dolphins only give birth to their next calf when the last calf has been fully weaned. Due to this, dolphins will only have another calf after at least three years.  

Dolphins do not reproduce very often, which allows plenty of time for the calves to grow fully and increase their survival chances. The mother will lactate and produce milk until the calf has been weaned.

Dolphins swim differently from fish and whales.  Find out more here

What is the Importance of Milk to the Young Dolphins? 

Like land mammals, milk is vital to a young dolphin’s existence. Baby dolphins need milk for healthy nourishment and growth.

Dolphin calves survive on milk until they are ready to wean. Without milk, dolphins have low survival rates, starving to death. A newborn dolphin consumes large amounts of milk daily and is their sole source of food at this time.

The milk is nutrient-rich for the baby dolphin to grow and thrive. The liquid is packed with healthy fats that provide energy calf. Other nutrients are needed to boost the immune system, support bone development, and ensure the brain functions properly.

Dolphins use echolocation. Please find out more in this article I wrote

Breastfeeding creates a bond that is unbreakable between the mother and her calf. This bond is essential for the development of the baby whale. 

Research has proved that the relationship between marine mammals and their parents is crucial for survival. Marine mammals living in captivity have shorter lifespans than their counterparts in the wild. In captivity, dolphins cannot nurture naturally as they would in the wild.

Dolphin milk contains a high concentration of fatty acids. The fat in the milk helps develop blubber. Blubber is a thick layer of fat under the skin of dolphins.

Blubber develops as the dolphin grows. Since dolphins spend all their time underwater, they must prevent heat loss and keep their body temperatures constant.

Blubber acts as an insulating layer against the coldness of the water. The high-fat content from the milk enables the thick insulating fat layer to develop.

If you or someone you know loves dolphins, check out my favorite dolphin gifts on Amazon.

Recommended Books

Guide to whale watching in North America : USA, Canada, Mexico. Where to go, what to see.

Handbook of Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises Of the World

Encyclopedia of Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises