Research shows that Dads play a critical role in breastfeeding success. Unfortunately, even Dads who recognize the value of breastfeeding and want to help provide what is best for their babies find themselves confronted with many obstacles, including less than optimal birthing practices, societal and cultural norms, and inadequate information.
A few weeks ago I was working as an on-call doula for a young couple expecting their first baby. I met them at the hospital where they were scheduled to have a cesarean at 37 weeks due to intrauterine growth restriction. Despite widely recognized optimal birth practices, her doctor scheduled a cesarean using general anesthesia (rather than an epidural, which would have allowed the mother to be awake and present for her baby’s birth) and told the couple that the baby’s estimated size (according to the CTG scan) was between 3-4 kilos. In reality, the baby was born at 1.780 kilos (less than four pounds), and the mother was asleep or struggling in and out of consciousness for the next 8 hours while she recovered from her surgery with Pethidine in her IV.
The concerned father fretted while the baby was whisked away into a nursery (he was allowed to “see” him, but not hold him), eventually fed a bottle of infant formula, and kept for four hours in an infant warmer. Eventually we convinced the hospital staff to bring their baby to them. While the mother was mostly unconscious, the father was anxious to establish breastfeeding, so we immediately placed the baby skin to skin on the mother’s chest- taking great care to monitor the baby’s body temperature. Their baby laid there, eyes blinking, lips mostly still, trying to regain his bearings for two hours on mom's chest (thankfully, the nurses agreed to let us keep the baby after they checked to make sure the body temperature was adequate). Finally, baby began to move-lips and tongue began searching for something-exactly what we had been waiting for!
Taking the baby’s cues, I first demonstrated how to help the baby latch onto the mother’s breast, and then coached the father so that he would know how to do it. He was sweating with exertion as he leaned for hours over his wife’s body, patiently working with their tiny baby. I was there providing one-on-one support for the father until late into the night. The next two days I stopped by to answer questions and provide encouragement. When I walked into their room, it was the father who I heard explaining to his wife what a proper latch should look like. With the proper support and training, it was the father who was able to coach and support his wife during a critical time.
Another obstacle many fathers encounter is the social or cultural norms that push a father outside of the realm of newborn nurturing. Now days, though, there are great “role models” for men publicly advocating for fathers to take on a more active role in birth and to become equal partners in parenting. Noah Wyle (star of ER) supported his wife through two homebirths and produced an excellent film “What Babies Want” exploring practices that effect newborn baby development. Ryan Gosling (The Notebook & Crazy, Stupid, Love) is a proud advocate of homebirths and waterbirths, midwifery, and breastfeeding. Everywhere you look, you see more and more fathers carrying their baby’s around in slings and front packs and changing diapers.
Here in Kuwait, my friend said that when she was struggling with breastfeeding as a new mother, her in-laws were giving her a lot of pressure to “just give the baby a bottle, and come join” them for dinner. It was her husband who explained to the rest of his family how important breastfeeding was to them and asked for their support. She said she “couldn’t have done it without his support.” Father's play a unique role as advocates for breastfeeding to their own families and to society at large. Keep it up dads!
Many fathers want to provide support, but lack information. I have found that most men are anxious to learn about birth and newborns- no matter their cultural background. My last Lamaze class had a variety of nationalities, including Kuwaiti, Lebanese, Romanian, Hungarian, Canadian and American. Good fathers are not limited to any particular nationality.
In my classes, Dads are anxious to learn practical skills like swaddling and changing babies, wearing them in slings, and breastfeeding by watching videos about milk production and latching on. When I got my evaluations back at the end of my last class, the father’s provided excellent feedback: "Class was a blast. Enjoyable, informative and interactive. The thing I like the most about the class is the diversity of activities (lectures, discussions, Taboo [games], videos, articles, fun facts."
Another couple wrote: “My husband and I have attended two of your classes so far but we can already say that it has been one of the best decisions to sign up. Books are helpful sure, but not as much as your classes and the way you explain everything into details and spends extra time with us if needed. It is much appreciated. Getting all the questions answered and all the steps explained makes us a little more confident each time. Thank you for sharing your knowledge with us and making us more prepared for the biggest "project" of our lives."
If you are a Dad who wants to do all that’s possible to make sure your baby is breastfed, here are a few tips:
- Educate yourself about breastfeeding (whether through classes, books, or videos). Don’t just read about the benefits or basics of latching on- make sure you get the facts about mom’s first milk- Colostrum- optimal birthing practices that support breastfeeding, what to expect during those first few weeks of breastfeeding (dad's need to know that cracked or bleeding nipples are within the range of normal and have someone ready to call if they have questions about things like that) and ways to measure your infant’s progress.
- Advocate for your wife and your baby. Whether you are talking with hospital staff, family members, or friends- advocate for your baby’s right to breastfeed and your wife’s need for support, encouragement, and confidence. Lead the way by example!
- Anticipate your wife’s and your baby’s needs. Mothers are often distracted and absorbed as they focus on meeting the needs of your baby. Make sure that she is eating and drinking enough; offer to hold the baby so she can take a nap; get up at night when you hear your baby cry to change her diaper before taking her to your wife to nurse. Your the critical person in her support team!
To all the dad's out there (including my own husband and my father) who help make this world a better place for all of our children by supporting and advocating for breastfeeding- Thank you and keep up the great work!