Breastfeeding: How to Get Dad Involved
A man may think his part in breastfeeding is minor, yet studies show that a baby's father plays a critical role in whether a mom and baby develop a successful nursing relationship.
Healthy Nursing Relationships
When it comes to pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding, never are the biological differences between men and women more apparent. Simply put, mothers have the ability to breastfeed—fathers don’t. While the relationship and closeness between a nursing mom and her baby can make many men feel left out, fathers can and should play an important role in nurturing their breastfed babies.
“It’s important for dads to be involved,” says Armin Brott, author of The New Father: A Dad’s Guide to the First Year and the host of the weekly radio program Positive Parenting.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that a baby receive breast milk exclusively for the first six months of life. “Women with supportive and encouraging husbands will find more joy in breastfeeding and are less likely to quit early,” says Brott.
So how can a man bond with his child while encouraging a healthy nursing relationship between his wife and baby? The opportunities are plentiful!
Support Mom Emotionally
It’s crucial that a man support his partner’s decision to breastfeed. Reading books and attending classes on breastfeeding with his mate is a great start.
A father can also offer comfort and encouragement in the early weeks of nursing, when hormones and sleep deprivation can cause a mother to feel discouraged. Expressing confidence in the mom’s ability to breastfeed her baby is one of the most important first jobs a dad can do. “Cheerleading goes a long way,” says Brott, the father of three daughters. “It may sound trite or silly, but it works.”
Marybeth LaRosa, of Granby, Connecticut, recalls how her husband communicated his support while she was nursing her first baby. “After three and a half weeks, my son and I were finally getting the hang of breastfeeding. My husband said how great and adept a breastfeeding mom I was. He said how truly amazed at how my son’s weight gain was all due to me,” says LaRosa. The cheerleading paid off; LaRosa successfully nursed her first two children and is now breastfeeding her third child, too.
“It’s important for guys to understand the many things that can go wrong in breastfeeding,” says Brott. “Many people have this idea that breastfeeding is this all-natural, wonderful experience—and it is for some people. But for some women, it’s not. A big role for Dad is to be the one to call the doctor or lactation consultant if she’s in pain.” Many women may feel that they are failing as mothers if they are experiencing problems with breastfeeding and are less likely to ask for help.
“My husband was my staunchest support when we had our firstborn,” says April Almeida, a mother of two from Ontario, Canada. “I was the usual new mom that knew nothing. The lactation consultants put us on schedules, and I ended up struggling so hard to learn to nurse … I was getting depressed as the weeks loomed on and everyone around me, including family said to give it up, have a break, rest, don’t force it—everyone but my husband. He knew how it mattered to me and insisted I keep going.”
Support Mom Physically
After a newborn comes home, the household may receive a lot of visitors, which can be draining to a new mom—especially while she and her baby are trying to establish a nursing relationship. “Dads can be the gatekeeper to the house,” says Katy Lebbing, Manager for the Center for Breastfeeding Information, La Leche League. “During this time, a new mom may be shy about nursing in public and is trying to build her skills as a nursing mother.”
Making sure a breastfeeding mom has a quiet, comfortable place to nurse is a wonderful way for a dad to show concern and support. Some moms may prefer to have items such as the phone and the television remote nearby, and a dad can help by gathering these things and making sure his wife has something to drink during nursing sessions. Of course, helping with chores, shopping, and cleaning are all duties that dads can take over or assist with as well.
“My husband was really good about playing with our older child, getting me a glass of water to sip while nursing or a bite to eat, and if I was in the middle of making dinner when my daughter needed to nurse, he’d take over that, too,” says Jenn Moore, a mother of two from Palmyra, Pennsylvania. “He would let me have a break to nurse since he is 100 percent pro-breastfeeding and wants for me to succeed for the benefit of me and our daughter.”
Take a Turn Feeding Baby
Some people may feel that an occasional bottle is the only way a father can bond with his breastfed baby, but that is not the case. “We hear from moms that they want dads to get involved and to give a bottle,” says Lebbing. Giving a bottle in the early days can upset breastfeeding. One study found that 95 percent of babies had trouble going back and forth between bottle and breast in the early weeks.”
However, after baby is comfortable with nursing, supplementing with a bottle of expressed breast milk or formula can be a positive bonding experience for both a dad and his baby, and give the mom a much-needed break. Brott cautions dads, “Try not to take it personally if your baby seems less than interested in taking a bottle from you. Once they’ve gotten used to their mothers nipples, babies get a little surprised when presented with a plastic one. Plastic nipples come in all sorts of shapes and you may have to do a little experimenting before you and your baby find the kind she likes.”
On the flip side, many couples decide against ever giving a bottle for various reasons. In this case, if participating in feeding is important, Dad can be the main solid-food feeder later.
Set Aside Time to Bond with Baby
“Get plenty of private time with the baby for activities that provide skin-to-skin contact,” suggests Brott. Changing diapers, cuddling, bathing, and baby massage are all things that will help a father create his own, unique bond with his baby.
“It is important for dads to carve out some one-on-one time with the baby. Make the baby part of your life. Holding, changing diapers, and talking walks are all the mundane things that some guys feel are silly but that is where the trust is built and where relationships are founded,” says Brott.
“One thing that we started with my daughter from the time she was a baby was that bath time was [my husband's] time with her, and that was something he always did with no help from me. It was a great way for him to bond with her doing something other then feeding her,” says Moore.
Dad’s Role in Weaning
Dads can play a vital role during the weaning process as well. “They can be very helpful by substituting a more fun activity for the baby other than breastfeeding,” says Lebbing. This is a time when the father may become a more important source of emotional nourishment while the child and the mother discover new ways of feeling connected. (Learn more about simple steps for weaning Baby, here.)
“When I decided that I had had enough [breastfeeding my child], my husband was very supportive and said whatever I wanted to do, it was my choice. He understood how hard it was sometimes, so he completely understood when I said that I was all done,” says Stacey MacDonald, mother of two from East Haddam, Connecticut.
“I nursed all four of my children, and whenever they were fussy, hungry, or tired, I put them to breast,” recalls Lebbing. “When I had a grandchild, I needed to learn what dads do to soothe their babies.”
A Final Fringe Benefit
While some men may feel jealous or left out, there is a benefit to Mom breastfeeding—no bottles to prepare and warm in the middle of the night! “My husband often jokes with new fathers and tells them ‘you really need to convince your wife to breastfeed because you won’t have to get up as much,’” says Deb Pizzonia, from East Haddam, Connecticut, mother of three with the fourth on the way. “While he was talking to them though, I also got the sense he was proud of me, has a lot of respect for me, and realizes that I made a lot of sacrifices, since my freedom is limited. He truly feels it is the best thing for the baby.”
Above all, fathers need to remember how important they are to their babies. By supporting his partner and taking an active role in the care of his infant, a father will find it’s possible to bond with his little one and begin building that special father-child relationship.
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