So much literature about parenting and breastfeeding is written with the mother in mind. Of course, in the average family, the mother is usually the primary caregiver (and is the one with the feeding equipment!), so it is important to direct a lot of support to her. However, the father of the family is an integral part to the parenting journey and indeed to the success of breastfeeding.
There is very little breastfeeding literature available to expecting dads. This is ridiculous, because the father will be the main provider of support to the mum in those first few crucial weeks.
One example that springs to mind of the importance of fathers in the breastfeeding relationship is a close friend of mine. She really wanted to breastfeed her son, and she did for about 4 weeks in total. She suffered from blocked ducts that were so bad that her son couldn’t latch on the affected side at all. She diligently pumped and persevered to treat the problem, and unfortunately ended up with mastitis. That was cleared up with antibiotics, which then led to thrush. She had one problem after another and tried very hard, but eventually decided that she couldn’t cope with the strain any more and switched her son to formula. Her partner was very supportive from the start, but after a couple of weeks he started to encourage her to “put him on the bottle” on a regular basis. Of course, he meant well; he saw his partner suffering and was desperate to do something to help. He wanted to make life easier for her, and he wanted to be able to shoulder some of the burden of night-time feedings. He was doing his best to be a kind, caring, supportive partner and father and of course he should be applauded for that. His intentions were so good.
He supported her in the best way he knew how — he saw a problem, and tried to offer a solution. However, the sort of support he was offering her wasn’t the kind of support that she really needed. What she needed was encouragement; she needed for her nearest and dearest to tell her she was doing a fantastic job and that things would be okay soon. She needed someone to encourage her to seek professional breastfeeding support. She needed someone to remind her, in that chaotic time of New Parenthood, that things would get better and that she would soon get through this tough time.
She and her son have a wonderful, close, attached relationship. Formula feeding has not affected their bond in the slightest, and she is generally happy with the way things turned out. However, she admits that she feels a great sense of grief at the loss of her nursing relationship with her son. He is 2 now, and I am sure that she would still be nursing now had things gone better at the beginning.
Had her partner had breastfeeding education himself, he may have been better equipped to offer her the kind of support she really needed at the time. Unfortunately, fathers are usually completely left out of that kind of education. Although they are encouraged to attend antenatal parentcraft classes, the extent of breastfeeding education is usually half an hour during one session.
At most breastfeeding groups and classes, men are welcome. It is worth calling the leader of the class or group first just to make sure, but most places are becoming more open minded about the people their groups and classes serve. It is becoming apparent, now more than ever, that the importance of educating fathers about breastfeeding is just as important as educating the mother.
So, if you are a father reading this, tag along with your partner when she goes to antenatal group, breastfeeding classes or La Leche League meetings. Educate yourself on how to best support them, and how to spot problems should they arise. As a father, you are in the best possible position to offer your partner a rock-solid support system. And don’t be afraid to seek support for yourself, should you need it. The wonderful mother of your children is the salt of the earth, but so are you. Dads matter too!