Once that due date is circled on the calendar, moms-to-be start to learn about breastfeeding from their health care providers, books and magazines, and talking with friends. That means they’re usually aware of the possible challenges of breastfeeding and the realities of baby care.
But dads may be blissfully unaware of what’s about to happen to their lives. “Before Reagan was born, I hadn’t really thought about breastfeeding much,” says Stephen Kavanagh. “I knew Nicole really wanted to breastfeed, but I didn’t think of any of the complications that could arise. I thought it would be second nature. You know, it’s natural, so why would there be any problems?”
Surprise! Natural doesn’t always mean easy. And even when breastfeeding is going well, feeding baby around the clock can be exhausting. The challenge for fathers is often figuring out the best way to provide support when breastfeeding isn’t going as planned, or when mom is feeling worn out. If you urge her to keep trying, are you pushing too hard when she’d rather go to formula? Or if you offer to go out and buy some bottles, are you undermining her efforts to keep breastfeeding? And in the middle of all that, how do you build your own relationship with your new baby?
Breastfeeding can be very important emotionally to a new mother, as Kavanagh soon discovered when his wife began to have sore nipples and difficulties feeding their son. “Reagan was tongue-tied and unable to create a proper latch. I did have thoughts that this might not work and we would have to move to formula. I didn’t say that out loud, though, because I realized that this was very important to Nicole — so I just tried to encourage her and help her find help. But it was very difficult to watch both Nicole and Reagan struggle.”
Simon Dubois and his wife, Judy, overcame some significant breastfeeding hurdles as well when Judy gave birth to twins. The problems seemed almost overwhelming at first. The public health nurse who visited them recommended pumping after each feeding, as well as taking domperidone and herbal supplements to increase milk production. This time-consuming routine seemed to be working, but then Judy developed mastitis that required five days in hospital. This was Dubois’ chance to shine.
“When she was in the hospital, the twins and I roomed in with her so she could continue to breastfeed and I could help with baby care,” Dubois says. “Later, at home, I did all the washing and assembling of the pump. In the middle of the night, I would get up with the babies, deal with the pump, bring Judy a snack and put away the pumped milk. I prepared the bottles and fed the babies while she pumped. I also tried to deal with all the household chores and caring for our two older children.”
Despite his commitment to helping his wife breastfeed, Dubois confesses that he had doubts. “I secretly bought some formula. My aim was not to discourage Judy’s efforts, but I was concerned for her and the babies and wanted to have some on hand in case we decided it was too much for everyone.” While they never used the formula, Dubois says his wife was “very angry” when she discovered his purchase.
And there’s the dilemma. While some women will be angry and feel the offer of formula is undermining, others will be relieved and grateful. “There are times when you just don’t know what to do, and you have to listen to your wife and hear what she wants,” says Dubois.Dads can support their partners by learning what help is available, says Kavanagh. “Lactation consultants were of immense help,” he says. It might help for dad to make that initial call and set up an appointment.
Of course, at the same time you are trying to support your partner through breastfeeding, you’re also dealing with huge shifts in your own life and relationships. “It was exciting, but it was a big change,” says Jay McGreal, father of five. At first, when breastfeeding is being established, the father is “kind of waiting in the wings,” he says. Kavanagh found that what solidified his relationship with Reagan was “just to spend time alone with the baby. I took every opportunity I could to change him, rock him to sleep, bathe him and just spend time with him whenever I could.” See “The Dad and Baby Bond” for more ideas.
Says McGreal: “My favourite thing is when Suzanne has finished nursing and she puts the baby on my chest, and he just melts into me. It’s the greatest feeling I’ve ever had.”
The dad and baby bond
How can the father of an exclusively breastfed baby build his own relationship with his little one? Spending time together and learning to read your baby’s signals and respond will forge a strong attachment between you. Here are some ideas:
Bathe baby Babies usually like this, especially if the two of you get into the big tub together and cuddle skin to skin.
Use a sling or carrier When baby’s fed and content, tuck him in a sling and go for a walk, or relax in the backyard. He’ll enjoy hearing your voice and your heartbeat.
Bring baby to mom for feedings If the baby is in another room, you can be the one who brings her in to be breastfed. She’ll soon calm down when she sees you, knowing that food is about to arrive.
Be the tummy-time play mat Lie on your back, and let baby lie on your chest and practise lifting his head and developing his muscles.
Is your partner having difficulties with breastfeeding? Helping her connect with expert help may be the best support you can provide. Some options:
• International Board Certified Lactation Consultants (IBCLCs) have documented experience in helping mothers and have passed a rigorous exam. They may be in private practice or work in a hospital or clinic setting. Some public health nurses are also IBCLCs.
• Midwives and public health nurses, even if they are not IBCLCs, usually have some training and experience in helping breastfeeding mothers.
• There may be a breastfeeding clinic in your community or linked to the hospital.
• La Leche League leaders are experienced breastfeeding mothers who have taken additional training to help other mothers. You can find one near you at lllc.ca.