It’s an anatomical fact that men don’t have the equipment to give birth or breastfeed, but that doesn’t mean that fathers can’t play an important role in helping their partner give birth and successfully nurse their new baby.
For most mothers, their partner’s opinion is the biggest influence on making the decision between breast or bottle feeding – more important than that of their parents or friends. It helps tremendously if the father is on board from the beginning.
Dads can help by educating themselves on the many benefits of breastfeeding, as well as what to expect during the early days postpartum. If they are aware of the many “pluses”, including cost savings as well as the nutritional and immunological advantages, they can be more encouraging and supportive, especially when moms encounter the inevitable ‘bumps in the road’ and may become overwhelmed and tempted to give up during the early days of breastfeeding.
Taking breastfeeding classes together during the pregnancy is a good way for both mom and dad to learn what to expect when the baby arrives. However, all the classes in the world can’t prepare parents for the real thing, so it’s important to have a good support system in place so that as questions arise or problems occur, dads won’t find themselves frantically Googling ‘engorgement’or ‘sore nipples‘ at three in the morning.
Before the baby arrives, find out what resources are available in your area. Ask what support services the local hospital or birth center offers, locate the closest IBCLC or La Leche League group, or reach out to one of mom’s friends who breastfed their babies.
Many fathers feel a bit helpless when their baby is a newborn. Since nursing is the only thing babies are interested in at this stage, dads often don’t know what to do when they get fussy. They may be tempted to feed the baby a bottle of that formula sample from the hospital, which can cause problems with the mom’s milk supply, as well as nipple confusion – and that often means the beginning of the end of breastfeeding before it really gets started.
There are many, many ways for dads to nurture their infants and interact positively with them besides feeding them. They can give baths, change diapers, and soothe fussy babies by walking or rocking or swaddling or patting their backs while they curl up on their hairy chests. Babies love skin to skin contact, and it’s wonderful way for dads to bond with their little ones.
Many dads find that ‘baby wearing’ (using a baby sling or front pack) is a good way to keep their little one settled. Babies love the feeling of being held closely, and the motion is very soothing as well. This works out better for many dads than sitting in a chair with a baby who is rooting around looking for mom’s breast.
Dads can also “baby” the new mother by helping with household chores, making sure she remembers to eat and drink, and taking care of details like paying bills and running errands.
Although sex will have to wait for a while, new fathers can still be physically close by giving mom massages, rubbing her feet, running her bath, or doing anything they can to make her more comfortable. After watching her give birth, most dads are in awe and are more than ready to spoil mama a bit!
Dads can take the baby after feedings to give mom time to take a bath or shower. They can help her get more rest by getting up during the night to change the diaper and bring baby to her for feedings, then burping and helping baby settle back to sleep.
Dads can also create a ‘buffer zone’ after the baby arrives. During the early hectic days after mom and baby return home, there will be phones ringing and people visiting and adjustments to be made by older siblings or family pets. This is all happening at a time when mom is more tired than she has ever been in her life, is still recovering from childbirth, and going through some major hormonal upheavals and physical changes as her milk “comes in.” She and the baby both need time to get the hang of this whole nursing thing.
Dads can screen calls, handle visitors, and order pizza. During those early days, families need time to spend together bonding as family, and mom needs lots of rest. It’s best to wait until the mom’s milk supply is well established (the first couple of weeks) before introducing bottles, but after that, dads can share in feedings by giving the baby a bottle of expressed breast milk.
Breast pump technology has come a long way in the past few years, making it possible to quickly and efficiently express milk for supplemental feedings. Investing in a good breast pump is one way to ensure that you will be able to have extra milk so that your partner can share in the feedings.
Although the father’s role in the nursing process will never be the same as the mothers, his understanding and support can make all the difference in helping his partner and his baby have a positive breastfeeding experience.
Anne Smith, IBCLC