Most fathers understand that breastfeeding is what is best for mother and baby, but there continues to be widespread aversion to breastfeeding from fathers.
“If he could, he would.”
Remember that motto from Project Breastfeeding, a photographer’s series depicting macho fathers with their tattoos and beards held their babies in nursing-like positions to take a stance in favor of breastfeeding?
It was perhaps the most pivotal conversation starter in terms of getting to the bottom of what fathers really think about breastfeeding — the good and the bad.
Most fathers understand that breastfeeding is what is best for mother and baby, but there continues to be widespread aversion to breastfeeding from fathers. I don’t hear it a lot from the source — almost any father that comes along with one of the pregnant moms I support says he fully supports breastfeeding — but I do hear it a lot from these same mothers once baby is born and they’re in the thick of breastfeeding, especially in the early weeks and especially if there are any breastfeeding challenges to work through.
But this problem of dads supporting breastfeeding in theory but not in practice is not as simple as him being jealous of baby’s breast time with mom — though that does play a part, and really, women, we should take this seriously, too. Rather, fathers’ concerns run far deeper and often to a place that isn’t readily fixed: Dads feel they are missing out on bonding with their newborn.
They feel left out of the whole newborn experience. They don’t feel they have a meaningful part. They don’t feel competent and confident in their role as a parent, because mom seems to be all that baby needs.
It’s hard to see that from the other side, as the breastfeeding mother. We may wonder why our partners aren’t content to just help us out, which of course is loving baby. But we don’t think about whether it would be fulfilling to always be the errand-runner, the guy who makes sure mom has some food, who changes the diapers, who gets this, who gets that, and who can’t soothe the baby in his arms like mom appears to be able to do like magic.
Moms, think about that twinge of jealousy you had the first time your toddler went through a phase of preferring dad over you, when you had been your little one’s go-to — however touched-out and out of balance it felt like, at times — for so long. Maybe you didn’t feel that twinge, but if you did, that’s a little taste of what fathers go through, especially with their first baby and going through the huge emotional transition of a family of two becoming three.
What’s a breastfeeding mom to do? Here are eight tips to support your partner in getting more involved in early fatherhood in meaningful ways without changing his stance on breastfeeding:
- Talk about it: Your partner may need some help exploring his feelings about breastfeeding. It’s difficult for him to reconcile his feelings if he’s not fully on board with what everyone is recommending, and even more difficult if he — like a lot of men who grew up in our culture that discourages emotional vulnerability — isn’t quite sure what he’s feeling. If you hit on feelings of jealousy, isolation, and fear of not bonding with his baby, it may be enough to help your partner to identify the conflict in his heart on the matter and to jump-start problem-solving.
- Learn about breastfeeding together: Just because dads can’t breastfeed doesn’t mean there’s not value in learning about it. A dad who knows more tends to be more supportive, especially when breastfeeding challenges arise, and is often the person who makes or breaks a mom’s commitment to breastfeed. But your partner may not be too keen on reading breastfeeding books on his own, so find ways to learn about breastfeeding together. Maybe take a class together or encourage him to find a new fathers support group or just share dad-friendly breastfeeding materials with him.
- Suggest he do skin-to-skin: Skin-to-skin contact isn’t just for moms and newborns. This bonding practice that works off the benefits of oxytocin and physical closeness can be done by any adult, including fathers, and at anytime whether in the hospital or at home. It’s probably as close to breastfeeding as a father can get, and it’s hugely beneficial in not only bonding together but also giving baby the benefits of temperature, breathing, and heart rate regulation — and dads can do this just as well as moms.
- Encourage him to wear baby: Father and Project Breastfeeding founder, Hector Cruz, shared about how babywearing saved him from floundering as a new father and set him on a path of close bonding with his baby that has continued well into toddlerhood. Babywearing in a wrap, sling, or another soft carrier keeps baby close. Worn babies tend to sleep for longer stretches and cry less, too, which can help build dad’s confidence that he, too, can settle baby.
- Give him a job that only he can do: Among dads’ complaints about breastfeeding is that only the mother can do it. Consider giving dad a baby care task that only he will do, and take that time instead to give yourself a little balance. For me, I gave my husband bath time. The only time I bathed any of my babies was when there was a diaper accident while my husband was at work. Otherwise, it was his job alone. Bath time became a really special time between him and our three children, with them commenting to me years later that I just didn’t do bath time like Daddy did. This could be any baby care task really so long as dad is the only one who gets to do it.
- Remind him not to underestimate diaper changes: Fathers don’t want to think they’re only good for changing diapers, but diaper-changing is actually one of the best ways to get face-to-face time with baby. If you think about it, when you’re holding baby, putting baby down to sleep, bathing baby, or doing almost any other interaction, you may get glimpses of eye contact but not the face-to-face time possible with having baby laying down on her back during diaper-changing time. If dads can embrace this time as a gift, the diapers don’t seem so bad and can even be looked forward to.
- Encourage him to take advantage of bonding with older children: This is so helpful for you, and so needed for your older children who are likely feeling a little insecure in how much of your time is taken up with a newborn. Plus, dads can reconnect with their playful sides and gain a deeper connection with your older children that may have been put aside as they grew and gained more autonomy. Focusing on strengthening the attachment of older children and helping them process their emotions regarding the addition of a new baby helps the whole family in this transition, including your success with breastfeeding.
- Find ways for him to support you, and be sure to thank him: Whether it’s bringing you a snack while breastfeeding, or holding baby while you take a shower, or washing your breastpump parts, or changing diapers, or getting you another pair of breast pads, remember to thank your partner for his help. Doing errands like this can be meaningful if he’s recognized. No one likes to feel taken for granted, and that’s easy to do when we moms are so busy and overwhelmed and see our husbands’ role as supporting us but not being careful to show our appreciation. And our appreciation has to go beyond words — our partners need our time and attention, too, so even when you’re tired and touched-out, understand that the frustration can go both ways and try to meet him in the middle so you both can support each other in these early weeks of newborn care.