Dads fall in love with their babies and their whole outlook on life changes the first time they meet their little. And while there’s an immediate bond for mamas and babies if for no other reason but that Mom was baby’s home for ten months, dads don’t always connect as quickly or as easily. Not for lack of want or trying, though, and so we’ve put together these 12 tips for bonding beyond breastfeeding that can help dads feel more connected not only to their baby but to mom, as well.
Most fathers know that when it comes to feeding their baby, breast is what’s best. And they often love that their partner is breastfeeding. That said, some fathers may also struggle with feelings of jealousy, inadequacy, and exclusion. Dads want to be close to their babies too. Many times mom will pump and let dad ‘feed’ with a bottle so he has that experience. Heck, the desire to feed babies like moms do has even driven some dads to create their own milk or to resort to chestfeeding so they too can ‘nurse.’ Admirable in intention, we believe, but…there are plenty of other ways that dads can bond with their babies.
We know that moms need their partner’s support to make breastfeeding work. We also know that dads need mom’s encouragement to gain the confidence needed for long-term parenting success. So it stands to reason that helping dads to better bond with their baby will both support their partner’s breastfeeding goals and his own budding fathering skills.
Some fathers, it seems, have conflicting feelings about breastfeeding. On one hand, they want their baby to receive the very best nutrition. On the other hand, they may grow to see nursing as a barrier in their ability to develop an equally proficient way to soothe and attune to their baby.
Do you remember this motto from Project Breastfeeding: “If he could, he would?”
A few years back, a photographer created a beautiful photography series depicting macho, tattooed and bearded fathers holding their babies in nursing-like positions. 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’s best for the mother and baby, but as the early weeks stretch on — overwhelmed by the demands of caring for a newborn, punctuated by frequent sleep interruptions, and frustrated by lack of time to connect with his partner — a dad can struggle big time (and often these dads struggle in silence).
This problem of dads supporting breastfeeding in theory but not in practice is not as simple as him wanting more of his own breast time with mom — though that does play a part. Rather, fathers’ concerns run far deeper and often to a place that isn’t readily fixed; too often, dads feel they are missing out on bonding with their newborn, and that’s not good for baby or daddy.
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 the baby needs. And often, it seems mom is all the baby wants. Society often views it that way too, and we understand it’s only natural as again, mom was baby’s home for so many months of growth and development.
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 by simply loving our baby and being there to support us by running errands and helping with diaper changes. 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 yet, but if you did, that’s just a little taste of what many fathers go through, especially with their first baby.
Whether your partner is in the midst of this struggle, or you’re hoping to prevent it, here are 12 ideas to help dads to get more involved in early fatherhood without changing their supportive stance on breastfeeding:
1. Ask him to 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 get a jump-start on solving the problem. Tell dad talking about his feelings now will lead to better communication between you and him down the road, and certainly allow problems you both recognize to be addressed together as a team.
2. Learn about breastfeeding together.
Just because dads can’t breastfeed doesn’t mean there’s no value in learning about it. A dad who knows more tends to be more supportive, especially when breastfeeding challenges arise. This dad is often the person who makes or breaks a mom’s commitment to continue nursing her baby. But your partner may not be too keen on reading breastfeeding books on his own, so find ways to learn about breastfeeding together.
You can consider taking a class together or encourage him to find a new fathers’ support group or just share dad-friendly breastfeeding materials with him. Today, there are resources than ever to get dads involved in breastfeeding and all that goes into it, and dads want to know. They want to be able to support mama and knowledge is power.
3. Suggest that Dad and Baby 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 any time 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 your baby the benefits of temperature, breathing, and heart rate regulation — and dads can do this just as well as moms. No one ever complains of too much of the ‘love’ hormone, and the times dad and baby are skin-to-skin will be the times he treasures in years to come.
4. 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 help soothe the baby. Wraps and slings, carriers and the like are being created with both moms and dads in mind, and dads love being able to have the baby just as close as mom would when out and about. There’s no end to the assortment, colors, sizes and shapes and as baby grows, she’ll get a completely different perspective as she’s being worn. Win!
5. Recommend that he give Baby a massage.
Infant massage is another way for dads to feel physically close to their baby. Like skin-to-skin, massage takes advantage of oxytocin to soothe the baby whether to sleep or simply a bonding activity all of its own. Consider taking a local class to learn helpful massage moves to ease colic, excessive gassiness, or other baby ills. Or just encourage him to rub a dollop of infant-safe massage oil in his palms and get to softly massaging. That contact alone increases blood flow in baby and dad will feel good knowing he’s helping his baby in a physical way. No, it’s not breastfeeding, but it’s still a tangible, physical benefit to his child.
6. 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. Be sure to let him know that it’s his ‘job’ alone and you value its importance as pivotal for baby.
7. 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 the baby. If you think about it, when you’re holding your baby, putting the baby down to sleep, bathing him/her, 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 a diaper change.
If Dad can embrace this time as a gift, the stinky diapers won’t seem all that bad — he might even start looking forward to them! Many dads like to claim they’re diaper-changing champs because they know it’s a tough job and they get to do it. I’d often find my husband asking to change our son’s diapers because he loved knowing he was part of the good, the bad and the stinky!
8. Ask him to talk and sing to Baby.
Babies gain so much from face-to-face interaction with their parents. This is where they begin to learn about emotional facial expression and the beginnings of interpersonal communication. Also, hearing human speech gives babies the first step in learning how to babble. Suggest to dad to simply talk to his baby for starters, though exaggerating facial expressions can really help keep baby’s attention.
Singing is another variation on exposing your baby to new experiences. It doesn’t have to be classic lullabies — your baby will love whatever musical notes come out of Dad’s mouth. And, you’ll be shocked one day when your little randomly starts humming something they’ve heard dad sing or say to them all their life. It’s a gift and a memory for both dad and baby.
9. 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 bit 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. Again, this is one place dads really can feel like they’re rocks, because they are, and it makes a big difference.
10. Propose tag-teaming when you’re at work.
It’s not always possible for parents to work opposite shifts from one another, but it’s an idea if the opportunity presents itself. Then, while mom’s at work, dad can take a turn at being the primary caregiver. Not only will he grow to appreciate all that his partner does to care for their baby, but he will also develop his own bonding rituals for their time together.
My husband and I weren’t planning to tag-team when our first baby was born, but as an early preemie coming home smack in the middle of RSV season, daycare was out of the question. So we both moved into work shifts that allowed one of us to be at home caring for our newborn while the other worked.
It not only worked to avoid daycare costs, but also gave my husband a head start in bonding with his firstborn. His confidence in parenting rubbed off on our relationship, too, so we were able to make the most of our time home when we were together.
11. Offer family snuggle time.
Maybe all your partner needs is time to cuddle up with you and the baby. And what better time to do that than during breastfeeding? Try putting on a movie, making some popcorn, settling down on the couch together, and just enjoy being together as a family. If you have older kids, by all means, ask them to join you. Adults are like children in that they can learn to associate positive feelings with certain experiences.
If breastfeeding means your partner gets to snuggle with you and baby together and relax, he may soon seek it out, and that means bonding for you all.
12. 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 breast pump 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 it’s easy for us moms to take our partners for granted when we’re so busy and overwhelmed. If we’re not mindful of acknowledging our partner’s role in parenting, we’ll make him feel like he’s playing the role of “supporting character.” 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.