The Role of the Partner in Breastfeeding

The Role of the Partner in Breastfeeding: How the Support of Dads, Co-Moms and Other People Makes a Difference

Categories: Breastfeeding Today

By Alyssa SchnellMissouri, USA

A partner’s support can be one of the most important factors for a parent’s breastfeeding success. Partners can have a strong influence on whether mothers choose to breastfeed. [1] For example, in one study, when fathers were given a two-hour presentation on how to support breastfeeding, the mother was 1.8 times more likely to initiate breastfeeding. [2] Partners can also have a strong influence on the duration of breastfeeding. [1] In another study, when fathers were educated prenatally about overcoming common breastfeeding difficulties, mothers who experienced difficulties were nearly five times more likely to be breastfeeding at six months. [3] However, the baby’s father is not the only breastfeeding partner shown to affect breastfeeding outcomes.  In another study, mothers with doula support were significantly more likely to have their mature milk come in within the first 72 hours and be breastfeeding at six weeks. [4]

A baby’s father is not the only kind of partner who can support breastfeeding. A partner may also identify as a co-mother or co-parent, or may be a grandparent or other relative, a close friend, a doula, or anyone else that the nursing parents identify as their partner in breastfeeding.

 

What are some specific ways a partner can support breastfeeding? 

Know and use resources: None of us truly parent on our own, and there are times when making use of resources is essential. La Leche League (LLL) offers numerous resources to help with breastfeeding and mothering, including The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, the La Leche League International website (www.llli.org) and other La Leche League websites, La Leche League local Groups and Leaders, and LLL social media venues. Parents can seek out needed resources together, whether it be finding an online article to help with a particular problem a mother is experiencing, finding an LLL group meeting to attend, researching the name and phone number of a local Leader, or seeking out an LLL Facebook Group. [5]

Accept the commitment: Time, emotional and sometimes financial commitments — let’s be honest: breastfeeding can sometimes require a little boost. It can require some extra energy and loving care at the beginning if a baby doesn’t latch right away, falls asleep while breastfeeding, or simply takes a while to empty the breasts. The first few weeks of breastfeeding — and mothering in general — can be emotionally taxing as well. Also, depending upon your health care coverage and what area of the world you live in, in the event of an extraordinary breastfeeding challenge, your doctor may recommend you seek out an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant requiring a fee. In addition, renting or purchasing a breast pump or other equipment might prove helpful to overcoming a specific hurdle. A partner can accept this initial commitment to breastfeeding, knowing that in the long run, breastfeeding takes less time than bottle feeding, supports the postpartum adjustment, and saves money. [6,7,8]

Be a gatekeeper: A partner can maintain boundaries when others may demand the time or attention of the breastfeeding parent. The partner can answer the door or the phone, and can let others know that the new mother needs time alone or some rest.

Nurture the nurturer: I like to think of the breastfeeding mother like a pitcher of water, and her baby as the glass. If the pitcher is filled to the brim with water, it is easy to pour out. When the pitcher is empty, it is difficult or impossible to pour out. The partner can help the nursing mother “fill her pitcher” so that she may “pour out” her love, time and attention with more ease. Here are a few ways:

  •  Respect her needs regarding touch.

Some breastfeeding mothers feel “touched out” and desire less touch from their partner. Others desire additional affection from their partner because they are giving so much to their baby. Some breastfeeding mothers do not like their breasts touched sexually and others don’t have a problem with it. [5] Keep lines of communication open, and remember that this is all temporary. You will likely return to your former relationship over time.

  • Honor her basic needs regarding eating, sleeping, time alone, bathing/showering and exercising.

We may take these basic needs for granted before the baby arrives, but they become precious when there is a new baby to care for. Once again, partners can keep lines of communication open, by checking in with the breastfeeding mother about whether or not her basic needs are being met, and by asking how they can help with any lingering needs.

  • Facilitate socializing.

Being a new parent can feel isolating. When the mother is ready, the partner can make it easier for her to breastfeed with company in the home or while visiting others. Partners can also show that they are comfortable with the act of nursing in public, which in turn can make the mother feel more comfortable. One simple way the partner can do this is by sitting beside her using confident body language, perhaps with a tall back and friendly eye contact with others. [5]

Provide practical help: A partner can, for example, create a nursing nook, which is a comfortable place to breastfeed where the mother has access to whatever she might need or want. A nursing nook may be a comfortable chair in the home with pillows, if needed or desired, to support baby while breastfeeding; perhaps a stool to elevate the breastfeeding parent’s feet; and a table within arm’s reach for water or herbal tea, a healthy snack, book, remote, electronic device, and whatever else the mother likes to have at hand while breastfeeding. Partners can also take on extra duties with housework, cooking, or caring for older children. [9] Or they can arrange for outside help, either from friends and family, or from a professional (such as hiring a housekeeper or ordering takeout, if financially feasible).

Bond with baby in other ways besides bottle feeding [9]: Before breastfeeding is well-established (usually after the first four to six weeks postpartum), introducing a bottle can interfere with a good start to breastfeeding. Fortunately, there are many other ways for a partner who is not breastfeeding to connect with the baby. These include bathing the baby, changing the baby, safe babywearing, infant massage, holding the baby skin-to-skin while the partner is awake, and playing with the baby.

Alyssa’s husband, Brad, supported her through the joys and challenges of breastfeeding their three children

Photograph breastfeeding: Whether it seems like it right now or not, breastfeeding lasts just a relatively short time. Babies become toddlers. Toddlers become children. And they all eventually wean. If parents would like a sweet remembrance of the breastfeeding relationship, the partner can document it by taking a photo, making a video, or (if you want to get fancy) arranging for a professional photographer.

In clinical settings, we often think of breastfeeding as a dyad: a breastfeeding mother and her baby. It may even seem like others are excluded from this relationship, and they are in certain ways. Yet, in so many other ways, a supportive partner can be the foundation for a successful breastfeeding experience.

 

Alyssa Schnell is an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant, retired La Leche League Leader, and mother of three breastfed children, two by birth and one by adoption. She is an international speaker, author of the book Breastfeeding Without Birthing: A Breastfeeding Guide for Mothers Through Adoption, Surrogacy, and Other Special Circumstances, and a co-host of the Breastfeeding Outside the Box podcast.

 

 

 

 

References

1. US Department of Health and Human Services. The Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Support Breastfeeding. Washington, DC, USA: Office of the Surgeon General. 2011.

2. Wolfberg, A. J., Michels, K. B., Shields, W., O’Campo, P., Bronner, Y., & Bienstock, J. Dads as breastfeeding advocates: results from a randomized controlled trial of an educational intervention. American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology 2004; 191(3):708-712.

3. Pisacane, A., Continisio, G. I., Aldinucci, M., D’Amora, S., & Continisio, P. A controlled trial of the father’s role in breastfeeding promotion. Pediatrics 2005; 116(4): e494-e498.

4. Nommsen-Rivers, L. A., Mastergeorge, A. M., Hansen, R. L., Cullum, A. S., & Dewey, K. G. Doula care, early breastfeeding outcomes, and breastfeeding status at 6 weeks postpartum among low-income primiparae. Journal of Obstetric, Gynecologic & Neonatal Nursing 2009; 38(2), 157-173.

5. Rempel, L. A., Rempel, J. K., & Moore, K. C. Relationships between types of father breastfeeding support and breastfeeding outcomes. Maternal & Child Nutrition 2017; 13(3):e12337.

6. Mohrbacher, N., & Kendall-Tackett, K. Breastfeeding Made Simple: Seven Natural Laws for Nursing Mothers. California, USA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc. 2010.

7. Kendall-Tackett, K., Cong, Z., & Hale, T. W. The effect of feeding method on sleep duration, maternal well-being, and postpartum depression. Clinical Lactation 2011; 2(2):22-26.

8. Bonyata, K., Financial costs of not breastfeeding, February 2019, http://kellymom.com/pregnancy/bf-prep/bfcostbenefits/ (accessed 3 June 2020).

9. deMontigny, F., Gervais, C., Larivière-Bastien, D., & St-Arneault, K. The role of fathers during breastfeeding. Midwifery 2018; 58:6-12.

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