Just like new moms, new dads have a giant learning curve too. And when breastfeeding is part of mix, it’s crucial for couples to figure out the best ways for dads to help new moms, and for both partners to feel invested in breastfeeding. “A dad’s involvement is absolutely important; I would say it’s critical,” says Yolanda Fortin, an international board certified lactation consultant (IBCLC) and educator in Irvine, California, who works with families at her company, PhD Milk [http://www.phdmilk.com/]. “Breastfeeding usually can’t continue if it’s not a team effort.” In the academic world, study after study shows that when breastfeeding moms feel supported and helped by dads, breastfeeding continues longer, they feel better about pumping and banking milk when they return to the workplace, and they have more confidence in their breastfeeding abilities.
source: 2009 Bravado survey
Still, new studies reveal obstacles: for example, in one 2014 study published in the journal Maternal and Child Nutrition, the researchers found that “Overall, the findings showed that fathers were encouraging of breastfeeding and wanted to be able to support their partner. However, they often felt left out of the breastfeeding relationships and helpless to support their partner at this time. Many reported being excluded from antenatal breastfeeding education or being considered unimportant in post-natal support. Men wanted more information about breastfeeding to be directed towards them alongside ideas about how they could practically support their partner.”
The bottom line is that it’s best for both couples and health care professionals to think of the breastfeeding family, not just the breastfeeding mom. Dr. Lynn Rempel, associate professor in the department of nursing at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, and her husband, Dr. John K. Rempel, a professor in the department of psychology at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario, identified the idea of the “breastfeeding team” in their research. “Have the conversation; communicate what mom wants and needs and what dad wants and needs,” says Dr Lynn Rempel. “The teamwork metaphor is very good because it addresses flexibility: help when help is needed, be ready to do your own job, don’t be overinvolved or underinvolved,” adds Dr John Rempel.
Here are eight real-life ways to put the breastfeeding team into action.
1. Listen and communicate
When you’re tired, overwhelmed and unsure, deep-down listening and talking get pushed aside, but you have to pull those skills back the forefront. John Kinnear, a Salt Lake City dad who blogs at Ask Your Dad [http://www.askyourdadblog.com/2014/08/the-wrong-way-to-support- your-wife.html], writes about his experience helping his wife Stevie with their newborn: “It was really hard and frustrating at first. My first instinct was to cheer for her the way you would a tired athlete. ‘GO STEVIE! YOU BREASTFEED THAT KID! WOOHOO!’ But we had gotten better at communicating by then, and she told me what she needed. Whether it was a hug or small words of encouragement, a shoulder to cry on or some of those gel nipple pads, when she asked for it, she got it.”
2. Understand how breastfeeding works
Dads should be a part of prenatal classes and lactation consultant appointments. “I actually just changed my workshops to include dads more,” says Fortin. “I realized that moms focus so much on the nipple position and the baby’s mouth and latch, but not the overall mom and baby position, which is what dads can see.” In her classes, she sets herself up with a baby doll and purposefully assumes incorrect positions: the baby’s alignment to the breast is off, the nursing pillow is wonky, her shoulders are up. Then she asks the dads to identify the issue. “This gives dads hands-on tools to help,” she says. She also says that dads are often data-driven and they want to know the baby is getting enough breast milk. “So they can keep track of the number of pees and poops in the early days, how often the baby feeds, that kind of thing. It shows that breastfeeding is on track.” Finally, understanding how breastfeeding works—what it looks like when a baby is swallowing, rather than just resting at the breast—reassures parents who are anxious about milk intake.
3. Present a united front
In the early days, exhausted moms recovering from childbirth may have to deal with relatives or health care workers who urge bottle-feeding. If a couple wants to breastfeed, it’s important for dads to step up and kindly but firmly make the couple’s wishes clear. Down the road, Fortin has noticed that when mom is breastfeeding in public, a dad may take off to do an errand because he’s used to making a meal or throwing a load of laundry in while mom’s nursing at home. “Dude, don’t abandon her!” laughs Fortin, who says that if a woman is a bit nervous about nursing in public, or even if she just needs someone to hand her a cloth from the diaper bag after the baby has latched, it’s helpful for her partner to keep her company.
4. Be the baby transporter
Bring the baby to mom for a feed, take the baby afterwards for burping, a cuddle or a diaper change. Many moms award one million bonus points for doing this, at least some of the time, in the middle of the night.
5. Take care of mom
“Can I get you anything?” are five magical words. A drink, a snack, a pillow, a magazine—they can all make breastfeeding more comfortable. Breastfeeding does involve a lot of sitting down or lying down, which tends to be an adjustment for some couples. V. Kuroji Patrick, an artist and Washington DC-based community activist who advocates for involving dads in breastfeeding, advises new dads to act like they’re dealing with a sprained ankle—really! “Most new fathers don’t know what breastfeeding involves until mom is already breastfeeding, but most men know what it takes to help someone who is injured,” he says. “Be hands on, help out, ask if she needs anything. Be her protector but don’t be overbearing.” And of course, encouraging words, a back rub and a shoulder to lean on go a long, long way.
6. Look after the house and kids
Figure out which household chores each of you is going to handle and which things you’re just going to ignore while the baby is small. Hanging out with older kids is key too. “For some reason, everyone is totally chill until I sit down to nurse,” says Los Angeles mom Jenna Karvunidis, who blogs at Jenna’s Type [http://jennakarvunidis.com/]. “The moment I pop the baby on, suddenly everyone has to go to the bathroom and needs help getting into their princess costume or wants me to help them draw a frog. They also want to cuddle. Cuddling is great, but then it starts to feel like I’m buried under twelve tons of human flesh and no one can breathe and everything is the temperature of the sun. Maybe get these guys some Legos? Thanks!”
7. Be the pump caretaker
If your health insurance covers a breast pump, dad can be the guy who does the research beforehand and deals with the paperwork. Once mom is using a pump, dad can look after the sterilizing and cleaning of the pump and bottles. Similarly, he can be the one who checks on frozen breast milk, making sure that the correct batch is ready for daycare or another caregiver. Many dads look forward to feeding their baby with a bottle of expressed breast milk, which is generally fine to do after breastfeeding has been established around the four- to six-week mark, says Fortin.
8. Bond with baby
Nursing is not the only way for dad to bond with a breastfeed baby. “Skin to skin is a wonderful way to the child to familiarize themselves with dad’s heartbeat,” says Patrick. Bathing, cuddling, singing and dancing around together and nestling baby on dad’s warm chest are all sweet ways to establish that early connection—and let mom get a shower or a nap too!