By Danny Pitt Stoller
When I read articles and stories about breastfeeding, I frequently come across the comment that breastfeeding leads to a diminished role for the dad. After all, if only mum can feed the baby, how will dad get a chance to bond with his child? This comment always surprises me because my experience wasn’t like that at all. I have two sons, and both of them breastfed. (They subsisted exclusively on breast milk for the first six or seven months, and continued nursing for a significant period after solid foods were introduced.) But at no point did I ever feel excluded, nor did I feel I had a lesser or unimportant role in my children’s lives.
I’m certainly not the perfect dad, but I think I was successful at finding ways to stay involved during the period when my children were breastfeeding. Here are five of them. (Please note that, while I am drawing on my own experiences as a father, these same points apply to partners regardless of sex, gender identity, etc.)
Bonding with baby
When I was home with my first baby (I took time off from work during the early weeks), I was holding him virtually all of the time. I wore him in the baby carrier, holding him close against my body as I did chores around the house, rocked him to sleep, napped on the couch with my son lying on my chest.
During this period, the baby was exclusively breastfed so I had no role in feeding. Nevertheless, the closeness and physical bonding between us was constant. I would hand him off to mama just when he was hungry, and he would nurse. Although he nursed almost constantly at the very beginning, soon there would be a couple of hours between nursing sessions so there was plenty of play time with daddy!
There were phases when the baby would get very fussy in the evenings. He would cry at the breast and get too worked up to breastfeed. My walking and rocking him would help him calm down, and he’d be more ready to nurse.
As he got older, we developed a bedtime ritual that included both mum and dad. I would walk him in the carrier to get him ready for sleep (I had a special daddy walk that always made him drowsy)-after a while he would mumble, “mummy milk” or just “mama”, and then I would lay him down on the bed to nurse.
Tending to mum (and the house)
Apart from bonding with the baby, you can support breastfeeding by helping make sure mum’s needs are met. Nursing mums can get extremely hungry and thirsty. You know how pregnant mamas frequently comment that they’re “eating for two”? Well, nursing mamas are eating for two as well! When the mum and baby are comfortably positioned on the couch or in an armchair, it is a major inconvenience if mum has to get up and fix herself a meal. Frequently bringing her food and drinks can be an important way of helping the breastfeeding happen.
When the mum and baby are comfortably positioned on the couch or in an armchair, it is a major inconvenience if mum has to get up and fix herself a meal.
Along the same lines, there are a thousand things to do around the house and, ideally, the new mother shouldn’t have to think about any of it. If you’re a dad who does fifty percent of the housework, you probably think you’re doing a pretty good job; but in this case, fifty percent won’t cut it! When the baby is nursing, that’s a great time for you to pick things up off the floor, do the laundry, wash the dishes. Run to the store for diapers, groceries, whatever. Errands and household chores may sound trivial-but they’re not. Taking care of these things is what makes it possible for the mother to do what she’s doing.
Advocating for mum – at home
In the early weeks and months, you may have a lot of visitors. Friends and relatives want to see the new baby! That’s great, but remember that the mother is recovering from the major event of birth, and adjusting to her new life as a mum. She probably doesn’t want to jump up and play hostess, and she may not want visitors at all. Even relatives who come to “help” are probably going to be less helpful than they think. I’m not saying you should reject all offers of help, but you need to check in with your partner before you invite the whole tribe to come and spend the afternoon-and you need to say no to things when she feels too overwhelmed. Listen to her feelings, protect her privacy and respect her need for a quiet space.
Also, breastfeeding itself is a hot topic and (as we all know) everybody has an opinion. Your father, mother, sister, brother, her best friend, etc., are probably going to tell you what they think (about how long to nurse, how often, when and where to do it, etc., etc.). That’s fine, but don’t let extended family interfere with your family’s process of making decisions. Never let the new mother be pressured, shamed, judged or bullied into any choice about parenting. Be her advocate. When she feels too tired or too overwhelmed to speak up, you need to be the one who has listened to her and can speak on her behalf.