During the first few days, weeks, and months of life, breastfeeding mothers and children may seem physically inseparable. A new father with little experience with biologically normal mother and child behavior may feel a little bewildered and unsure of what his role is now. Indeed, growing up in a culture where breastfeeding was not seen as normal, many fathers may have had visions of giving bottles and taking night feedings to provide rest and support to his child’s mother. We know now, however, even the occasional bottle can contribute to soreness, nipple confusion (Howard, et al., 2003), and create extra work for everyone. Indeed, formula supplementation actually changes the gut flora of the breastfed baby in ways that could damage health (Mackie, R.I., Sghir A., & Gaskins H. R.,1999). However, research has shown the support of fathers in the breastfeeding relationship to be fundamental to success during the normal course of breastfeeding (Sherriff, Hall, & Panton, 2013). This critical support a father can provide empowers a father and strengthens the intimate bond he has with his child and his child’s mother. This article will provide suggestions of the powerful things a father can do.
A father can…
A father can talk to his child before birth. His child can hear his voice from the warm, safe, watery world at around 18 weeks. He can sing, read, and tell his child how excited he is. His child will remember the sound of his voice after birth.
A father can change in powerful ways. Fathers have instinct on their side: the biological advantage that hormones provide (Palmer, 2002). As pregnancy progresses, a father can feel an increase in oxytocin, prompting feelings of satisfaction and devotion regarding the expanding family. A father can feel the effects of prolactin which induces the desire to bond with his child. Vasopressin inspires protectiveness and commitment to his family. A father can surrender to these feelings which nature has perfectly fine-tuned for him and his family.
A father can learn about childbirth. A father can learn about breastfeeding. He can attend appointments with his baby’s mother. He can ask questions. He can actively practice breathing exercises, positioning, and learn words to say that might be helpful during the birth. He can be prepared for the expected and the unexpected. He can ask questions and listen. A father can trust his baby and baby’s mother. A father can be open-minded.
A father can learn about what life will be like once his child is born. He can take classes and read books. He can create a list of resources in case of problems. “The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding” states: “Partners don’t need to know how to solve breastfeeding problems; they just need to help [mothers] link up with the support and information [mothers] need.” He can chat with other fathers. If he has a supportive group nearby, a father can attend La Leche League meetings for fathers. He can ponder what he wants his family to be like. He can think about the things most important and central to the new family: breastfeeding, time spent together, bonding, sleeping, living, exploring. He can learn about what to expect by reading the stories of fathers who came before him.
A father can take pictures of his baby’s mother during her pregnancy, cherishing her changing body. These precious shots will be fun to look back on once baby is born, and for years after.
A father can have an active role at his child’s birth. He can help mother be comfortable, he can coach her to breathe, he can support her back, he can massage her body. He can protect the birth environment from unwanted intrusions. He can question and understand procedures. Once baby has been born, father can protect the baby from the effects of procedures that may separate baby from mother. A father can be the voice for his child.
A father can be supportive. When Sarah gave birth via emergency cesarean, she was too weak to hold wiggly baby Cynthia. Frank, Cynthia’s father, physically held Cynthia to Sarah’s breast so Cynthia could nurse. When nursing became very painful and stressful (Sarah was told to nurse, pump, and tube feed) and Sarah was feeling weak and vulnerable, Frank showed “tenacious commitment to the cause” and never suggested she quit. “I would not be breastfeeding today it if wasn’t for him…what would I do without breastfeeding today?”
A father can bring the baby to mother. A father can bring the water. A father can bring snacks, and the pillows, and the books, and the phone, and the quiet needed for the nursing mother.
A father can take pictures of his nursing child. A father can understand how precious these pictures are and will continue to be as the fleeting nursing years progress.
A father can understand the intense need his child has for mother’s body. According to Dr. Nils Bergman (Olander, 2004), “The very best environment for a baby to grow and thrive is the mother’s body… The mother’s skin is the baby’s natural environment, and both physically and emotionally the healthiest place for the baby to be.” A father can understand that this need does not go away when there is work to be done, when food needs to be prepared, when the house needs to be cleaned, and during the nighttime hours. A father can work to protect his baby’s natural habitat.
A father can understand the physiological need for his child’s close proximity to mother during the night. He can know from the work of Dr. James McKenna (McKenna, 2015) that “mother-infant co-sleeping with breastfeeding is humankind’s oldest and most successful sleeping arrangement.” He can work to support this arrangement and to keep it safe, feeling assured that mother’s breath and nursing on cue during the night protects his child. A father can protect this sleeping arrangement and understand that sometimes mother will be very tired.
A father can provide rest. Early in the morning, when mother is tired, a father can be present with his full, restless child. Between early morning nursing and when mother is ready to be awake, a father can cherish this time with his child. He can read to his baby and sing to his baby. He can wear his baby while preparing breakfast. He can give his baby a bath and take his baby for a walk.
A father can snuggle. A father can snuggle his child; a father can snuggle his child’s mother. A father can snuggle his older children. Need some oxytocin? A father can snuggle his child’s mother while his child is nursing. A father can practice kangaroo care, undressing the child down to his diaper and laying him on his bare chest. A father can sing and “hmmmm” and his child will be comforted by the deep vibrations in his chest.
A father can walk. When baby is restless and mother is tired, a father can place baby in a sling, wrap, or stroller and go out. Father and child both need sunshine and exercise. A father can take his child to his favorite spots, show his child the animals and birds, cars and planes, ball players, joggers, bikers, climbers. A father can explain these things to his child.
A father can be encouraging to his baby’s mother when no one else is. When Gretchen was nursing Quinn, who had an undiagnosed tongue-tie, her husband Jim never made her feel inadequate when things were looking bleak and the pain was too much to bear. He was there for her so she could get the support she needed and finally figure out that Quinn had a tongue tie. Quinn is now a happy healthy nursing two and a half year old and Gretchen speaks about how proud she is of how far they’ve come.
A father can champion his baby’s mother. When well-meaning friends and relatives ask questions about the whens, the hows, the how longs, and the whys of breastfeeding, a father can provide information and assurance. A father can understand the normal course of breastfeeding. “Isn’t it great that we are still nursing?” a father can say. His child’s emotional and physical needs are being met. A father can explain this to the people in the child’s world.
A father can feel gratitude. His child is nurtured through breastfeeding. His child’s immune system is completed through breastfeeding, the digestive tract is protected through breastfeeding, and cognitive development is progressed through breastfeeding. He can understand that nursing completes the reproductive cycle. His baby’s mother has worked tirelessly to protect the breastfeeding relationship. A father can feel gratitude for what she and nature provide. A father can feel proud that he took an an active role and has bonded with his child and his child’s mother with love and intimacy. A father can continue to provide support and encouragement during and after the normal course of breastfeeding.