Dad's Role in Breastfeeding

by Tom Johnston

If you are reading this column, you and your wife are probably expecting a beautiful baby, to which I say congratulations! You are already well on your way down the path of parenthood. Make no mistake you become a parent long before your baby is born, just as your child knows both mom and dad long before he or she is born.

The road that you are on will be tough; it will lead you through countless trials and conquests, ups and downs, and twists and turns. I am very fond of saying that parenting is a contact sport, but the rewards are tremendous. Each new skill, each new word, every new step you experience as your child grows is an exciting and miraculous journey down the road of life.

Enjoy the journey, the hard times and the easy times. Nothing in life compares.

There is so much to say about your role in breastfeeding that I just can't squeeze it in to the space limitations of one article, so we will look at the role of the father in two parts. The first part will explore the roles of each member of the breastfeeding team (Mom, Dad, and Baby). The second part will actually get down into the mechanics of breastfeeding. You will learn to assess what a "good latch" looks like and help you develop the skills you will need to help your family breastfeed.

As a midwife, a lactation consultant and a father of seven beautiful breastfed babies I'm often asked to share my perspectives with new parents. First, let me say, I have found through personal and professional practice that almost everything is hard the first few days or weeks with a new baby and breastfeeding is no different. You will do yourself a favor if you prepare for the challenges ahead by learning all you can before your progeny is born.

I encourage you to talk to your health care provider, your lactation consultant, and especially friends who have successfully breastfed for more than six months. Learning from successful and experienced breastfeeding friends is a good way to get honest accurate information and avoid the myths that make breastfeeding so very challenging.

I warn you to ignore the advice of couples who failed at breastfeeding, as their perspectives, while honest, may not always be accurate. Nothing teaches better than success.

Before we can talk about your role in breastfeeding, we have to answer the most fundamental question in the breastfeeding, why would anyone want to breastfeed? In the old days we used to talk about the benefits of breastfeeding, and you will still hear some people mention it, but not me. Believe it or not, breastfeeding doesn't make your baby bigger, stronger, faster, or smarter. Breastfeeding doesn't make him super human, it just makes him human.

According to the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) breastfeeding is the "physiologic norm" and rather than talking about the benefits of breastfeeding, they refer to "the risks of not breastfeeding." That is to say that not breastfeeding has significant health risks for the infant.

The problem is that infant formula is incomplete nutrition, it is missing several essential nutrients that a growing baby needs. Many people become offended at the notion that formula feeding is substandard nutrition, you will hear them defend their formula feeding history, but there is no hiding the fact, incomplete nutrition will always affect your long term health.

There are indeed risks to formula feeding, just like there are risks to eating fast food every day. If you eat fast food three meals a day for two years you would be weaker and slower, too. There is no doubt about it, inadequate nutrition is inadequate growth.

Breastfeeding is perfect nutrition and as a human mammal your child is designed to drink human milk made especially for him, by his mother. If you don't believe me, there are more than 4000 well designed clinical trials, and hundreds of other sources to prove my point. Honestly, if you don't think that formula is substandard nutrition you have been purposely hiding from the truth and nothing I say here will help change your mind.

For those who didn't breastfeed your children, it is important to understand that you are not bad parents. There are many barriers to breastfeeding in American society that makes breastfeeding much more challenging than it needs to be. It seems at times that everything is against you as a new mom or dad. You are tired, frustrated, and often frightened; you worry about keeping your baby healthy and you have heard all the frightening stories about how difficult breastfeeding is.

I strongly encourage you to talk to your local lactation consultants and other successful breastfeeding families about the barriers to breastfeeding that you may have faced. Often the things that made breastfeeding difficult or impossible will not be there the next time. Often, discussing the barriers in an open and effective manor with your health care provider will make those barriers disappear the next time around. I recommend clearing your mind of pre-conceived notions and learning from the experts around you to enhance your chances of success the next time around."

You will notice that I have taken great pains to welcome dad into the breastfeeding relationship, and I do that for a good reason. The only person with more influence over a mother's breastfeeding success than the father is the baby; and baby is already on board with this "choice." It is all he wants to do.

The value that dad brings to this relationship is often underplayed. When you watch TV, read stories, or even read your wife's precious pregnancy books you will be hard pressed to find much useful information on dad's job in breastfeeding. Most of the medical and nursing personnel you will meet assume that the father is either not able to help with breastfeeding, or simply not interested.

All the research available shows that they are wrong. As the father of the 21st Century I know you are smart, able, and interested in helping to make motherhood and breastfeeding as easy and successful as possible. I am certain that you are not only interested in breastfeeding but that you are uniquely talented at it.

Mothers consistently rate their husband's support as the most important contributing factor to breastfeeding success. The father is more important than grandmothers, best friends...you are even better than nurses, doctors, and lactation consultants.

Together, the mother, father, and baby will work to form a successful breastfeeding family. To enhance your family's chances of success everyone has to work together and focus their efforts on successful breastfeeding. So, let's talk about each member of the team.

The Mother's job is to put the baby "in the kitchen." That means that mom has to offer the baby the breast. You will notice that I didn't tell you that a mother feeds her baby, because she doesn't. The baby will feed himself. I always recommend (at least for the first few days or weeks) that the mother take off all the baby's clothes and put his naked chest right up against her bare chest. Once they are "skin-to-skin" cover the two with a blanket. That way the baby stays warm, and the mother stays modest.

With the baby in the kitchen, all you really have to do is wait for him to do his job. If you really feel the need you can coax him to nurse. You can talk to him, pet him, stroke his face and mouth and encourage him to feed, but ultimately the baby knows what he's doing and all you really have to do is be patient.

The Baby's job is demanding, but the healthy newborn is well prepared at birth. The baby has to identify the breast, he will wrap his cute little hands around it, put it where he needs it to be, open his mouth VERY wide and take the entire areola deep into his mouth, down his throat and suck and swallow until satisfied. The more breast tissue a baby takes in, the easier and more effective feeding will be.

Remember, it is the baby's job to feed himself. He is bright, energetic and ready to feed himself very soon after birth, usually within the first 48 hours. Don't rush him, being born is hard work and he is very tired after the adrenalin of birth wears off. If your healthy baby sleeps from 4 hours of life until 24 hours of life, he is still a normal newborn.

Mom, all you really have to do is hold him close, keep him "in the kitchen" and allow him to do what he needs to do. Your healthy newborn will surprise you, I promise.

The Breastfeeding Father's job has the hardest job in the family. I hate to say it, but it is true. But have no fear; I know that you are man enough to breastfeed for your family. Dad, your job is to do my job when you take your lovely new family home. When your bride wakes up at 3 in the morning and needs help getting your progeny to the breast, she won't ask me or her midwife to help get the baby on, she'll ask you.

When you go home, the spotlight will be on. You are a powerful team member and your team will have a much better chance to succeed if you are actively involved. So get in there, roll up your sleeves and breastfeed. Don't worry, I'll show you how, in part two of this series.

Tom Johnston is a midwife and lactation consultant. Tom obtained his Bachelor's degree in Nursing at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee and his Master's Degree in Midwifery at the University of Rhode Island in Kingston.

Tom is uniquely placed as a man in both Midwifery and Human Lactation and the father of seven breastfed children. He has spent his career advocating for the rights of fathers in the perinatal arena and has spoken on a variety of topics at conferences around the world, most recently for the Association of Woman's Health and Neonatal Nurses (AWHONN) and the International Lactation Consultant's Association (ILCA). In his written work he has advocated for better science in the field of bedsharing and has authored a chapter on the role of the father in breastfeeding for Breastfeeding in Combat Boots: A survival guide to breastfeeding in the military.

Copyright © Tom Johnston. Permission to republish granted to Pregnancy.org, LLC.