by John Hoffman
Breastfeeding. Big topic. Important topic. But there is so much information out there about breastfeeding that it can be mindboggling sometimes. I am far from what you’d call an expert. But I have done a lot of research and writing about breastfeeding. I’ve talked to dozens of mothers about their experiences. And I was on the scene for nine or so years of breastfeeding in our house. Based on that experience, here’s what I think Dads need to know.
1. You don’t need to know all the “benefits of breastfeeding.” All you need to know is that breastfeeding is the way babies were designed to be fed. Full stop. If you want to learn about breastfeeding, you’ll get a lot more value from information that will help you support your partner.
2. Don’t underestimate the importance of your support. Even though you “don’t have the equipment” your support can help her have the breastfeeding experience she’d like to have. But remember, there’s sometimes a fine line between being supportive and adding more pressure. Some breastfeeding moms already feel a lot of pressure. They don’t need more pressure from their partners.
3. Some of the pressure moms feel about breastfeeding is a side effect of breastfeeding politics. There’s an ongoing battle: public health officials and breastfeeding advocates vs. infant formula companies who use all kinds of subtle (sometimes unethical) tactics to get mothers to switch to formula. At the level of the individual this debate is little more than noise. My advice: focus on your partner and what she needs, not breastfeeding politics.
4. Although the vast majority of mothers start out breastfeeding, many of them stop sooner than they had planned. And one of the biggest reasons for stopping early is problems that the mother wasn’t able to solve. Breastfeeding problems can be, and often are, solved. Unfortunately, mothers don’t always get good advice. Ask around and find out who the best breastfeeding experts are in your community.
5. Breastfed babies need to nurse often. Breastfeeding is a “demand and supply” thing. The more a baby nurses the more milk Mom makes. Any guidelines you might see about how often a baby should feed are just that, guidelines, not rules. Frequent nursing is good, especially in the early days.
6. Many breastfeeding problems are caused by an improper latch. That’s the way the baby’s mouth connects with the breast. Breastfeeding is not just about sucking on a nipple. The baby’s mouth should be wide open as he comes to the breast so his mouth covers most of the areola as well as the nipple. The chin should be pressed against the breast with the head tipped back a bit so his nose isn’t squished into the breast. This short video shows what a good latch looks like. The video also shows how to tell if your baby is drinking (i.e. getting milk). This is very useful information for new parents, because it is sometimes possible for a baby to be nursing, but not really drinking.
Having said all that, some babies seem to nurse just fine with “improper” technique.
7. Bottle feeds by Dad, if they happen, should happen because of the baby’s needs (or Mom’s needs), not Dad’s need to feel involved. Bottle-feeding doesn’t always mess up breastfeeding, but it can happen. At least, it’s best to delay bottles until breastfeeding is well established. And there are lots of important things you can do with your baby besides feed her. Here’s an interesting factoid. Research shows that fathers who give their babies bottles regularly tend to be less involved overall, than fathers who don’t give bottles (to their breastfed babies.).
8. Skin-to-skin contact helps babies figure how to nurse. Really. They used to put babies to the breast right away after birth. Now we know it’s better to put the baby on Mom’s tummy for a few minutes first (although this doesn’t always happen). Newborn babies who get early skin-to-skin contact figure out nursing more easily. Skin-to-skin contact can also help older newborns who are struggling with nursing. If your partner is having problems, encourage her give skin-to-skin a try. Even if it doesn’t help with the breastfeeding problem, skin-to-skin contact is good for babies in other ways. By the way, try it yourself. Skin-to-skin with Dad is good for babies too.
9. Ideally breastfeeding should be a family decision and experience. But when it comes down to it, it’s her body not yours. So my view is that, when it comes down to a tough decision – like whether to quit or whether to keep battling in the face of problems – it’s her body, her decision. The partner’s job is to be supportive and help Mom think about what she wants to do, what she feels she can do and what her options are. By the way, if your partner gives up breastfeeding, I wouldn’t try to talk her into the idea that it’s not a big deal. It may be a very big deal to her at first. Be sympathetic and supportive.
10. Bottom-line, your partner needs your support regardless of the feeding method – breastfeeding, bottle-feeding, or a mix.