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Helping Fathers Is Helping Mothers

Connie Chiavario
Sandwich, Illinois, USA
From: LEAVEN, Vol. 33 No. 3, June-July 2000, pp. 58

Have you ever received a call for breastfeeding help from a father? Have you ever helped a mother with the father present? Some Leaders are quite comfortable in these situations, while others are not.

Consider this scenario. You are asked to make a home visit to help a mother and baby achieve a good latch-on. You've given the mother help by phone but your suggestions don't seem to be working for her. You agree to visit and arrive with appropriate handouts, THE WOMANLY ART OF BREASTFEEDING, BREASTFEEDING ANSWER BOOK and your Leader's Log. The father greets you at the door and directs you to the mother and baby. He follows you in and takes a seat.

Several insights can help Leaders learn how to help a mother while helping the father in what some might feel is an awkward situation.

In a situation similar to the one above you might first introduce yourself and spend a few minutes talking to the couple, congratulating them on their new baby. Next you might ask the mother about breastfeeding and what she perceives to be the problem.

After talking about her concerns, you ask the mother for permission to observe the baby nursing. You ask where she would be most comfortable and suggest that she move there. You show her how to use pillows to help position the baby and reduce any tension in her arms and upper body. As you guide her in the technique to properly position her baby, you explain what you are doing. It is important to make a point of always asking permission and washing your hands before any contact with the mother or baby.

Father's Perspective

The father may ask questions while observing or offer his insights. What he has to say can be quite helpful. Perhaps he's picked up on something. He is also another pair of eyes and ears and can help the mother remember what you are telling and showing her.

It's also possible that a father may not like or may disagree with what you are doing or saying. In this situation it is important to remember that whether the father is asking questions or seems confrontational, it is his baby and partner. His behavior most likely comes from his caring and concern for the health and well-being of his family. Take the time to be kind and compassionate. Fathers need to be educated about breastfeeding, too.

Several popular books on the market describe the differences in how men and women think and communicate. Some talk about a man's need to "fix" things, find solutions, to know the reason why things happen the way they do. You can use this information when you work with fathers. Take the time to explain how things may go awry and why babies sometimes refuse to nurse or have a hard time latching on properly. Give an explanation of why the steps that lead to proper positioning work the way they do. For example, you might ask a father to turn his head to the side and swallow to illustrate why a baby's whole body needs to face the mother's breast during nursing. Involve him by teaching him how to check that baby's tongue is cupped and visible when nursing after letting him know why this is important.

Fathers sometimes feel left out when so much attention is given to the mother and baby after birth. Suggest some ways for him to participate in caring for his baby while you talk with him about the importance of bonding. Many fathers, like many grandparents, feel that feeding is the ultimate way to show love and caring. Let the father know that rocking, walking, bathing, dressing and talking to baby are also ways to bond with and learn about his newborn. Remind him that he can be helpful to his wife when she needs to do other things or just needs a short break.

How Leaders Help

With information that includes why things are done, encouragement to actively participate in caring for baby and helping mother, and support for his efforts, even some of the most skeptical or critical fathers become allies in the breastfeeding experience. Yes, these same three words that describe what we do for mothers apply to fathers, too.

Make it a point to let a father know that we are available for questions or concerns that come up in the future. You can also give him information about LLL meetings for fathers or couples in the community, if available. With a resource to contact, he'll know that he, as part of the breastfeeding family, has a continued source of support if and when he needs one. With the information and ideas the father has gleaned from you, he, in turn, can be a source of support for his wife and a protector against dissenting friends or family as she breastfeeds their baby.

There are times when working with a father can be uncomfortable. Most of the time, explanations and solutions that involve the father help diffuse any tension. At times there may be a difference of opinion or a personality conflict. In that case, you need to remain calm as well as clear about your job as a Leader. The parents can be referred back to their health care provider if one or both of them choose not to have you assist. As in all situations in which we help, the parents must be the ones to choose what they feel is right for themselves and their family.

LLL Leaders usually offer mother-to-mother help. However, by including the father, we ultimately give the nursing couple a greater chance for a satisfying breastfeeding experience and increase breastfeeding knowledge in the whole of society.

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