I work with a lot of newly expanded families. When a baby arrives, the entire dynamic shifts. Husbands and wives must navigate the changing relationships and mother/father dynamic. ‘Parents” become “grandparents” and everyone is trying to get their footing while figuring out their new roles.
Most of my clients will gladly share how supportive their significant other is with breastfeeding. In my experience It is more the exception to the rule to work with men and/or families that are openly against breastfeeding. However, I find many new fathers struggle with balancing being supportive of breastfeeding and protecting their new family’s physical and mental wellbeing. More commonly, they will attempt to help their partner with actions and words that appear to be but are not necessarily truly supportive of breastfeeding. Some common scenarios look like:
1. Mom had a vaginal delivery after forty-eight hours of labor. Baby was born healthy and latched right away. Late into the second night baby is breastfeeding constantly, leaving the mother in tears, exhausted with sore, raw nipples.
Dad responds: “It’s okay honey. Try to get some rest. I’ll feed the baby a bottle for you so you can be fresh in the morning.”
Problem: This may seem helpful but it’s likely to cause more problems. To bring in a good milk supply as well as support strong sucking skills it is preferable not to introduce a bottle this early, unless there is a true medical reason to do so. We want to see moms get as much sleep as possible and be as comfortable as possible but sleeping all night without draining the breast can lead to engorgement, plugged ducts, lower milk supply. On top of that the baby begins latching poorly or won’t stay latched at all.
Better response: “I am so sorry you are in pain. It will get better. I called a Lactation Consultant to help you get a comfortable latch. Maybe you can lay down and breastfeed. I’ll bring the baby to you when hungry and if you fall asleep while feeding, I’ll keep an eye on you to make sure you guys are okay.”
2. Baby is three weeks old and mom is still struggling with the latch. The baby is breastfeeding all day and each feed is forty-five minutes to an hour long. At the two-week pediatrician appointment, the parents learn the baby is underweight and needs to eat more. The pediatrician instructs the parents to bottle feed the baby formula after breastfeeding and return in three days to check the baby’s weight. Mom is devastated and in tears.
Dad’s response: “Don’t feel bad. You did everything you could. Some women just don’t make enough milk. This way I can help you feed the baby. I was formula fed and look at how well I turned out!”
Problem: Never start by telling a mother not to feel bad. This can make some people feel guilty for feeling bad, as if that emotion is wrong. Give her permission to feel frustrated, disappointed, angry or whatever. In these situations, always seek out professional help from a good Lactation Consultant. Pediatricians are knowledgeable about infants, but breastfeeding is not their specialty. The main concern will be if the baby is gaining weight appropriately, but don’t expect them to be able to tell you how to do that with breastfeeding. And the whole “I was formula fed and look at how well I turned out” is a poor form of support. When we know better, we do better. Two hundred years ago people got around with on horses and in carriages. It worked well enough, but now that we have cars, we drive cars! A formula fed baby does not mean the end of the world or that they will somehow be impaired. However, we do know that breastmilk is the ideal from of nutrition with benefits artificial milk cannot provide. Mothers want to do the best for their babies, and it is natural to have a desire to breastfeed and/or have a breastmilk fed baby.
Better response: “I’m sorry you feel that way. I’ve called a professional for help. She can help us figure out what is going on and how to make sure the baby is getting enough to eat. I know breastfeeding is important to you so I will do whatever I can to help you through this.”
3. Mother has breast reduction surgery two years before the baby is born. Mom delivered a healthy baby in the hospital. She began supplementing with formula before being discharged due to low milk supply. At home she breastfeeds and pumps several times a day. Baby is bottle fed formula after each breastfeeding session. Sometimes mother uses a SNS (Supplemental Nursing System) during breastfeeding sessions to make sure the baby is satisfied. She weighs the baby weekly but is getting a lot of negative feedback from friends and family. They generally feel she is putting too much work into breastfeeding and don’t really understand why she is not just bottle-feeding formula. Afterall, the baby is already getting bottles and formula anyway.
Dad’s response: “I mean I understand what they are saying. You are frustrated and complaining to me about all the time you spend pumping and the baby isn’t getting very much breastfeeding. You’ve made it this far. Let’s be happy that you were able to breastfeed at all and switch to bottle feeding now.”
Problem: Breastfeeding is a lot more than calories. Breastfeeding is soothing, reassuring and comforting for babies. Even if a baby is only partially breastfed, they receive the antibodies and other benefits and protective properties breastfeeding has to offer. If a mother desires to breastfeed, and put’s in the work and effort, she should be supported and applauded.
Better response: “You are doing amazing. I am proud of you for breastfeeding our child. It may not look the way you envisioned, but you ARE breastfeeding and giving our baby something special nobody else can give.”
I hope this gives some insight into how to be a supportive partner. Breastfeeding outcomes depend heavily upon the type and amount of assistance and support new moms receive. This significantly impacts the babies very important first days and well into the future. Afterall, breastfeeding is a family affair.