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?