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Father Figures

Patrick M. Houser
From New Beginnings, Vol. 26 No. 2, 2009, pp. 28-29

The history of mothers breastfeeding their babies has run the spectrum from feast to famine. Very long ago nearly every mother breastfed; nature obviously had a good plan. During less distant times mothers' breastfeeding became unfashionable and "proper society" did not even consider it. Many only breastfed if they could not afford a wet nurse. Mothers today often approach breastfeeding with ambivalence and this ambivalence is influenced by the fathers of their babies.

Research has shown that 98.1 percent of mothers breastfed when fathers were completely supportive. However, when fathers were indifferent, mothers only breastfed 26.9 percent of the time.* Public health and breastfeeding organizations are beginning to recognize the impact of fathers' attitudes on breastfeeding rates and are beginning to provide more outreach and education to fathers. Who are these fathers and what is the best way forward for mothers, fathers, and babies?

I have gotten into trouble with generalizations in the past but, in the interest of discovering what makes fathers feel indifferent to breastfeeding, I will risk a few. Some fathers think "less is best" and "the sooner I get my breasts, and my wife, back the better." It is not a lack of love for their families that gives men this attitude, but rather a lack of knowledge about the benefits of breastfeeding and breastfeeding for longer than the accepted norm.

The father who sees breastfeeding as a barrier between himself and his wife and baby may make his opinion known and thereby influence the crucial mother/child breastfeeding and bonding relationship. In such a situation, the mother may feel selfish for wanting to breastfeed. She may even feel forced to forgo breastfeeding altogether, in an attempt to facilitate father/child bonding.

Other fathers stand back and defer to the mother and let her make her own choice. While seemingly admirable, this may have the effect of the father feeling excluded, or excluding himself, and therefore missing out on a closer relationship with the mother and child. This approach could also lead to the mother and child not being as well provided for as they could be.

Studies reveal that hormonal activity in a father increases during his partner's pregnancy, and more so if he is present at the birth and closely involved afterwards. Hormones are chemicals secreted by an endocrine gland or some nerve cells that regulate the function of a specific tissue or organ. They are essentially chemical messengers that transport a signal from one cell to another. In a way, they tell us what to do, how to act. Prolactin, vasopressin, and oxytocin are among the hormones that are found at higher levels in men around the time of birth.

Increased production of prolactin is known to promote bonding/attachment and caring. Raised vasopressin levels cause a man to want to protect his family and be at home rather than on the prowl in search of another mate. Vasopressin is also known as the monogamy hormone, a hormone of commitment. When a father is intimate with his child, especially through skin-to-skin contact, his oxytocin production increases. Elevated oxytocin in a father is recognized as a key component in jump starting and maintaining his nurturing instincts and bonding with his baby.

Oxytocin is also produced in men and women during loving contact. Because of this it has been named "the hormone of love" by experts in the field, including Dr. Michel Odent, Sheila Kitzinger, and Dr. Sarah Buckley. It is a necessary hormone for a mother's body to produce in order to ensure a successful labor and it plays a role in breastfeeding. Since couples already produce oxytocin during intimacy, fathers can contribute this dimension of their relationship to the mother's labor and breastfeeding time. Consequently, father love, added as an ingredient to the scientific recipe of mother's labor and breastfeeding, can be a useful enhancement. The result of this increased hormonal activity is that bonding, attachment, protection, love, loyalty, commitment, and caring are all usually enhanced in a new father. On the other hand, Dr. Odent cautions that fathers who respond to the mother during childbirth primarily with a stress response can have a negative impact on the birth experience. Thus science is showing us that a father with close, strong, intimate contact during pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding will be supported by Mother Nature during his early engagement in the family. This then establishes a more durable foundation for a lifelong loving relationship between father and child and, indeed, for the family itself.

While nutrition is an important part of the breastfeeding equation, it is hardly the only component. Perhaps the biggest misconception is that the father can best bond with his baby by feeding artificial milk or breastmilk with a bottle.

A mother's milk is specific to her baby and adapts hourly, daily, and cyclically based on that baby's needs. These needs are physical, mental, emotional, and social and include brain development. Ideally, babies take milk directly from the breast at most or all feedings. This best maintains the mother's milk supply. It also allows her to spend more time with the baby rather than spending time unnecessarily expressing milk. For the baby, it avoids nipple confusion, or overfeeding from the constant fast flow of a bottle. Feeding breastmilk in a bottle is sometimes a helpful or necessary thing for a father to do, but too often it is done because fathers feel it is the only way they can bond with their babies.

For the majority of mothers a significant key to a successful pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding is the quality of care available from the father. By the father caring for the mother he is most certainly caring for his child as well. So what is the potential for a father's contribution to his family and what benefits might he derive during this intimate time between a mother and child?

A father can carry out virtually any and all other forms of caretaking for a new baby. Plus if a man is regularly skin to skin with his baby they both benefit.

Jamie, father of 13-month-old Zephyr, reports, "The breastfeeding connection is beautiful. I love watching the joy on Zephyr's face as he sucks away into bliss. I have bonded with Zephyr very well. I have always spent a lot of time with him and we are regularly skin to skin. Now, I am running around the woods, playing, cuddling, and supporting him to be free spirited. I don't feel 'on the side' at all. We both have different connections with him and they are equally strong."

Mothers and babies need to continue their close, intimate relationship that began in the womb. A child's security depends on it and breastfeeding is a big part of this need for a baby. It is important for men to understand this and differentiate their role in early parenting. Remember, fathers are dissimilar to mothers and approach life, and especially parenting, differently. Mothers also need to remember that they may be seen as gatekeepers to the baby and it is important they support "dad's way" of being with his new baby.

Elmer is the father of four-year-old Lucien, who still breastfeeds a couple of times a day. "What a gift for me as an adult male to be around my son as a living example of abundant security. Lucien having extensive breastfeeding seems only to have supported his intelligence. Our sense is that his knowing he can connect with his mother has helped him feel securely attached and it will also simply come to an end when it does. His other life transitions have taken place in their own time, as this one will also."

An added bonus of a bonded father/child relationship is that the "life expectancy" of the family may be enhanced. Fathers who do not feel included and part of a family will tend to leave, one way or another. This is reflected in our current culture for divorce and separation. A father who is attached and committed to his children is more likely to stay with his family. Science is on his side, and Nature and Nurture are working in harmony. When a man's nurturing instincts and hormones are awakened everyone wins. As a culture we have the responsibility to see to it that our fathers and children have the opportunity to fulfil their potential. Mothers and fathers can embrace breastfeeding together and each have a higher level of satisfaction during the time of early infancy and family bonding.


*Littman, H., VanderBrug Medendorp, S., Goldfarb, J. The Decision to Breastfeed. The Importance of Fathers' Approval. Clinical Pediatrics 1994, Vol. 33, No. 4, 214-219. See

The transition to fatherhood is one of the most significant and challenging experiences a man will ever face.

In order to have a satisfying and successful experience fathers must feel safe, supported and confident.

To optimize the possibilities for our families, we need to provide appropriate and gender specific educational, physical and emotional support for fathers.©2009 Patrick M. Houser

Patrick M. Houser is the author of the Fathers-To-Be Handbook, a roadmap for the transition to fatherhood, a freelance writer, lecturer, and parenting and childbirth professional educator.

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