The breastfeeding father

I’ve just had my first Mother’s Day and, funnily enough, it’s made me think about fathers.

Laurence Talitha bought me La Leche League membership. The LLL is an international charity for breastfeeding mothers and I’ve just begun going to its Bristol branch meetings.

The card they presented me with on Sunday read: “Thank you for breastfeeding me.” Well, baby, I wouldn’t be doing it without your daddy.

It got me thinking that breastfeeding can and should be a shared experience. In our context, the person I share it with is my husband.

There’s so much talk these days about the pressure on women to breastfeed. I think the feeling of being pressured (and I could get into a whole post on why I believe there’s a lot of pressure on women to formula feed) stems from the increasing isolation experienced by women in Britain. So many of us are bearing the responsibility of breastfeeding on our own.

I’ve been thinking a bit about what has made things different for us. We’re a family that has faced ongoing breastfeeding difficulty from the initial tongue-tie to the persistent low milk supply.

Yet I can genuinely say I’ve never been alone on this journey. That knowledge is what has kept me going.

My first ever Mother's Day card

Along the way we’ve learned a lot about how fathers can get involved in breastfeeding. I’ll share mine and you can add yours:

1. Have the talk
I think it’s so important to be on the same page. If you understand how the other person feels about the idea of breastfeeding when they’re calm and rational, it will be easier to help each other through difficulty when you hit the mental-ness that is life with a newborn.

We hadn’t talked masses about breastfeeding before Talitha was born – at least nowhere near as much as we do nowadays! We were rather preoccupied with the birth. I’m glad, though, that we’d chatted it through enough for Laurence to know how important it was to me, for me and for the baby.

He understood that I expected to exclusively breastfeed, to do so on demand and that I was worried about whether or not it would be OK. We had discussed not having formula in the house in case we hit a rough patch and switched instead of problem solving.

I’d say it’s worth it for both of you to get your expectations and any concerns out in the open. Talk about what’s important to you when it comes to breastfeeding. Of course, you can’t plan for everything in advance and you won’t know how you really feel until the time comes but a bit of preparation goes a long way even if you end up having to be flexible.

Having talked beforehand has meant that despite being as stressed out as I was at certain points on this journey, Laurence was a voice of calm. While he has thought, “Oh, let’s just switch to the bottle already,” he’s always gently encouraged me because he’s known how much I want to breastfeed our daughter.

Not quite what I had in mind, Jack...
Image: Meet the parents

2. Learn the basics
I know I’m over-generalising here but a lot of men seem to prefer to take a technical approach to the baby thing. This is one of the reasons I think getting them to learn about breastfeeding is worthwhile.

For one thing, I’m just not a diagram kind of person but having seen the NCT handout, Laurence was able to help me work out the latch in the early days.

Fathers may also find that attending the breastfeeding session of an antenatal class or being present for a visit from a breastfeeding peer supporter helps to inform their own opinions. Of course, the decision to breastfeed or not is the mother’s to make. However, if you know a bit more about it yourself, you can better support her in her decisions either way.

I also think the fact that the NCT handout mentions the benefits of breastfeeding a child to at least two years has meant Laurence is no longer completely weirded out by the idea.

In it for the long haul?
Image: stockerre

3. Don’t be left out

When people talk about helping with breastfeeding they usually mean that dad (or grandparents) can give the baby a bottle of expressed milk so mum can have a rest. This suggestion irks me, to be honest. It feels like a breast pump advertisement. Hunching over a pump for half an hour hardly sounds like a break to me.

As for sharing the experience, I don’t see why anyone else needs to feed my daughter to bond with her.

But I don’t think that means that fathers are stuck with just bringing mums cups of tea and doing the washing up, though these are always appreciated (I don’t want to jeopardize losing either one!).

It just takes some creativity. For instance, when Talitha was younger and less distractible, we found lying down together while I fed her an intimate way of sharing the experience.

We’ve also discovered that dividing tasks help ensure that he isn’t left out and that we stay connected as a family. So, most of the time, I feed her and, if she hasn’t fallen asleep, he rocks her to sleep at bedtime. He’s done his fair share of babywearing. In fact, he was the one to teach me how to wrap the Moby. Bath time is daddy time so much so that by the time she was six months old I’d only bathed her once or twice.

Breastfeeding her is one of the things that has helped me grow in confidence as a mother. And Laurence has found his own route to forging his identity as a father. It’s freed me to continue feeding without worrying about excluding him.

It’s a privilege for anyone to be involved in the breastfeeding experience at its most fragile point, the beginning. A father’s words, actions and attitudes uniquely shape this time.

So, over to you. How do you think fathers can get in on the breastfeeding action? How have you seen fathers do it?

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  • well you know my husband was pretty militant pro- breastfeeding while I was a bit flappy about it until I had done my own research. But thank God for his dedication. While there were a lot of people around us who were practically pleading with me to give my poor, evidently-hungry-cos-she-cried-lots baby formula (seriously is no one familiar with colic!?!) he was the one who told me to ignore them and carry on doing what I was doing. If it wasn’t for him I’d definitely have started her on formula just to avoid confrontation and the finger of blame for baby’s incessant crying. And he was able to be so assertive cos he too had done his research. I think just learning about breastfeeding is one of the most important things a father can do to help.

  • My husband always supported me breastfeeding, and respected my decision as to how long I was going to do it for. Although it’s funny, with my first I was ready to stop and he wanted me to continue, but when I fed the second for that bit longer he was starting to wonder when I was going to stop!

    For me, the most important thing that he could do was just to let me get on with it, and when I was doing that long long feed before bedtime, get on with tidying up downstairs, washing up and so on, so that when the baby was sleeping I could relax. When I had a second baby, he did the bedtime/bath routine for the oldest so that I could shut myself away in peace and not need to be disturbed. The couple of evenings that I was on my own putting them both to bed I did struggle a bit. 
    I really admire you and your breastfeeding journey, and thank you for sharing it. You really are doing an amazing job despite setbacks.

  • I found it useful that because I was breastfeeding, my kids didn’t associate my husband with milk, which means he was indispensable when it came to weaning and making them sleep through the night. If I was there they just wanted milk. My husband supported me brilliantly whilst I was feeding and then was able to take over when it came to other aspects of feeding.

  • I think you are right, seeking support from your husband is key and I found that as I had such a hungry baby, my husband was able to get involved with expressed feeds. At the start, I combined breast with formula before exclusively bf until O was 7 months to help with colic. I believe in pro choice. Great post. 

    • That sounds like real partnership. You identified what you needed and felt able to ask for it. That’s important. I think my husband felt rather let off the hook when I decided the feeding was going to be all me. 

  • A Very useful, informative and supportive post.  My hubby was very supportive when I had problems breast feeding in the early stages and when I decided to combination feed he was supportive as well. Many nights we chatted and joked as I used my breat pump. It as comforting not being on my own in the late hours doing it, also it gave him a chance to feed his son.

  • I breastfed for 13 months but despite a really supportive husband, it was a hard journey, particularly the first 6 months. 

  • Great post – the actions and words of those around you, especially those closest to you, can be the difference between continuing breastfeeding when you are going through a rough period and switching to formula. My husband was supportive the whole time I was breastfeeding. One weekend, he did suggest I switch to formula, but I can’t say I blamed him – it was a VERY low weekend, and if the roles were reversed, I would have suggested it myself. For the first month after I came home from hospital with our son, i don’t think I made so much as a cup of tea – every time I sat down to feed, I was provided with snacks and water – those little gestures can make such a difference and really help to keep you going.

    • It must be so difficult for people who love you to watch you struggle with breastfeeding when they don’t know how to help. I can totally understand why they want to go out and get the formula – it’s the only practical thing they may feel able to do. It sounds like your husband found creative ways to make you feel loved. Love is such an energizer. 

  • Lovely post – I agree wholeheartedly!
    I have breastfed all of my four children (still am) and have been thankful for the support of their Dad. There are plenty of ways Dad’s can be involved with babies that don’t involve feeding them….
    This is a subject close to my heart as I have been a LLL Leader for nearly 7 years. Enjoy your membership! It is a fantastic organisation! X

  • I agree, it is just so much nicer to know that someone knows that you are awake AGAIN and feeding at night, without having to actually do anything. My partner had baths with our babies and danced and sung them to sleep at night sometimes and gladly took them when they cried at night and breastfeeding wasn’t the answer. I think just telling dads that enjoying having baby asleep on them while they watch tv, or whatever, is important for them and the baby is helpful because the more time they cuddle, the closer they seem to be, and also it reminds us that as mothers we’re doing the most important work when we let our babies sleep in our arms and ignore the washing up! Charlie 

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