I knock gently on the door in the post-delivery unit, and enter to find a new mother trying to latch her baby. It’s not going well, and I can tell she’s stressed. And standing a bit off to the side is the baby’s father, looking unsure of where he fits into this picture.
As a hospital-based lactation consultant, I have seen countless new parents posed like this —mom in the foreground, struggling, and partner in the background, helpless and bewildered. And this snapshot encapsulates a bigger issue new parents face: Figuring out each other’s roles.
While many resources focus on mom—providing hands-on breastfeeding help from nurses or lactation consultants—the partner often receives little to no attention. This has a predictable result: partners often feel left out or helpless.
It doesn’t need to be this way. Although partners cannot breastfeed, they can and should be an integral part of the breastfeeding relationship.
Partners are critical to breastfeeding success
The medical establishment sets lofty breastfeeding goals for women: The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months of life, and partial breastfeeding with solid foods for at least a year.
Yet many women struggle to meet these recommendations or even their own more modest goals. About 60% of mothers stop breastfeeding earlier than they wanted to because of concerns about their baby’s health or their own health. Many women find breastfeeding excruciatingly painful— developing blisters and cracked and bleeding nipples. Others have to supplement because their babies are not gaining enough weight.
Studies have also found that education geared toward partners actually doubles the likelihood of women exclusively breastfeeding for at least 6 months.
Overzealous breastfeeding advocacy can make women feel ashamed or like bad mothers. It ought to go without saying, but no woman should be forced, bullied, or badgered into breastfeeding.
But continuous support from partners and the medical establishment at large can help more women meet their own breastfeeding goals. In one study, simply adding lactation program into a pediatric practice boosted exclusive breastfeeding rates by 9-15%.
Which brings us back to partners. Partners, it turns out, are key in whether mothers continue breastfeeding past the first 3 months. Studies have also found that education geared toward partners actually doubles the likelihood of women exclusively breastfeeding for at least 6 months. Partner education even improves positioning and latch in the early postpartum period.
What can partners do to help women meet their breastfeeding goals?
Partners reading this are probably wondering what concrete actions they should take. The good news is that straightforward, positive reinforcement is a great start. Simply acknowledging your partner’s efforts by saying “You’re doing great at this” or “That latch seemed a lot easier for you this time” can go a long way.
Simple actions help new mothers feel less alone, and less like everything rests on their shoulders.
You can also hand baby to mom to breastfeed, helping with positioning and checking the baby’s latch. And just as important, make sure you are stepping up when baby is not nursing, by changing the diaper or holding baby skin to skin. More than anything, these simple actions help new mothers feel less alone, and less like everything rests on their shoulders.
Mixed emotions are normal
Part of bringing partners into the fold is acknowledging that mixed emotions are natural. Yes, many partners want to support mom’s breastfeeding efforts, but they can feel at a loss for how to do so, or even jealous and shunted to the side by mom and baby’s newfound physical closeness.
Part of bringing partners into the fold is acknowledging that mixed emotions are natural.
One UK-based study examined fathers, specifically, and their attitudes toward breastfeeding. The majority of men interviewed had positive attitudes toward breastfeeding. They extolled the health benefits, such as their baby rarely getting sick, and appreciated not having to pay for formula. But mostly, they wanted practical information on why breastfeeding was beneficial, what breastfeeding was going to really look like, and how they could support their partners.
We also need policies that help partners stay engaged
Of course, breastfeeding support doesn’t just boil down to parental attitudes. Supportive social policies can make a huge difference. Take, for example, the lack of paid parental leave for many fathers. This can worsen the early lopsidedness parents experience when one is responsible for all the feedings. In the U.S. parents receive inadequate leave, and fathers, in particular, are often fearful of taking whatever meager leave they receive. In the U.S., a whopping 70% of fathers take 10 or fewer days of leave.
Of course, breastfeeding support doesn’t just boil down to parental attitudes. Supportive social policies can make a huge difference.
It’s easy to envision a different system. Many countries have policies designed to help partners engage with their new baby. In Sweden, for example, new fathers or same-sex partners now receive 30 days of whenever leave while mom is on maternity leave, making it easier to help out with doctor’s visits or when someone falls ill. After Sweden implemented this policy, mother’s use of anti-anxiety drugs, antibiotics, and need for post-birth hospitalizations all dropped.
What you can do now
Getting more parent-friendly policies in the U.S. is an uphill battle, to put it mildly. However, we can all make an effort to bring partners into the mix. As expecting parents, be sure to discuss your expectations, set realistic goals, and create detailed action plans for each other’s roles. Attend prenatal childbirth education and breastfeeding classes together. And after your baby is born, speak up about how you both are feeling and give each other positive reinforcement. Finally, seek out healthcare professionals who acknowledge both of you in the breastfeeding process.