Studies show that when a nursing mother has a "significant other" who is educated about and supports her choice to breastfeed she is much more likely to be successful at it. For many mothers, this significant other is the baby's father. What role can Daddy play?
Being a good student and team player. There is much to learn about breastfeeding. While it is natural most mothers and babies don't automatically know how to do it. The learning process often goes more smoothly if some education has taken place prior to baby's birth. Ideally, mom and dad will take a breastfeeding class together. When I was routinely teaching breastfeeding classes, most dads did not come, thinking that this class was for mom only. In reality, daddies were often my best learners. Late in pregnancy, mothers are tired and overwhelmed with all there is to do in preparation for the new baby. Dad provides a second ear and someone to help sort through all the information. When he knows the benefits of breastfeeding, the potential problems, and the real solutions, breastfeeding becomes a family choice and a team effort.
Running interference. New moms and babies, especially first babies, are often bombarded by well-wishers. Too many visitors can mean delayed feedings, a mom who doesn't get needed rest, a baby who becomes over-stimulated from being passed around too much, and a less-than-optimal start to breastfeeding. Some moms give bottles when company is around because they're not comfortable nursing in front of others yet, which may contribute to or cause breastfeeding difficulty. Dad must run interference for Mom. This can be done by screening visitors when mom and baby are engaged in crucial early feedings. Some dads find that placing a note on the hospital door or the door at home thanking visitors for coming but stating that mom and baby need quiet time right now is an effective yet tactful way to curb too many visits. Turning the phone off and letting the answering machine pick up calls is another way to avoid interruptions. When it's time to feed, Dad can simply say to visitors that the visit was appreciated but that mom and baby need some private time together now. Visitors who truly want mother and baby to get off to the best possible start will understand.
Taking care of mom. It's been said that Daddy feeds the baby by feeding mom. Often new moms forget to take care of themselves. One of the best ways Dad can ensure his new baby is getting all she needs is to see to the needs of her mother. He can take charge of waking baby for feedings while Mom prepares to breastfeed. He can help Mom get settled in her favorite nursing area by bringing pillows or a footstool. Something to drink is usually the first thing Mommy needs when she begins nursing and something Dad can bring to her. Making sure the nursing mother eats well and rests when she needs to is also an important job for Dad. Newborn babies commonly need to be reawakened after feeding from the first breast. This is a good time for Daddy to come back in and change baby's diaper. I've even known some dads to help moms with latching baby onto the breast.
Being a cheerleader. Many times during the early days and weeks, new moms will question their decision to breastfeed when faced with discomforts or sleep-deprivation. Often this weariness is related more to being a new parent than to breastfeeding. This is when Daddy needs to step in and remind her why she chose to breastfeed, help her remember that things will get better, and encourage her that she is doing a good job. If problems persist, this is also the time to encourage her to seek help.
Squashing criticism. Often breastfeeding moms are criticized by family members for their decision to breastfeed. Perhaps Grandma did not nurse her children and has concerns about how it all works. Moms who nurse for longer periods of time are sometimes criticized heavily by family and friends. Should this happen, Daddy needs to step in and run interference again, even if the offender is his own mother. He can't allow his partner to be the brunt of extended family's critical words about her breastfeeding relationship. Reminding them of the benefits of breastfeeding is a good place to start. Sometimes a little knowledge does much to quell negative words. If criticism continues, Dad may have to sit down with the family member and firmly explain, or "lay down the law", that while he respects their concerns and opinions this is his and his partner's decision and the counter-productive words must stop.
Bonding with baby. Daddies bond with babies in much different ways than mommies. Many experts believe that the natural course is for mothers and babies to more closely bond in early infancy with Dad's role becoming more important later. This is not to say that he doesn't have a special role now, only that he should expect the mother-infant bond to be strong and not feel threatened by it, knowing that he and his child will uniquely bond in time. Early on, Dad can derive the same skin-to-skin benefits as Mom by giving baby a bath or massage. An occasional bottle after the 4th week is also okay if Dad wants to actively participate in feedings. When bottle-feeding, he can hold baby to his bare chest. Later when baby becomes more active and social Dad will find that playing with his baby is the easiest way for him to strengthen the paternal-infant bond.
What if Daddy isn't around? Sometimes, mom's "significant other" isn't Daddy. If this is the case, be assured that another can step in and support Mom in breastfeeding just as effectively. This might be a mother or a sister or close friend who has breastfed. Support is critical for all those who hold a special place in Mom's life. By lending it, daddies, family members, and friends ensure that mom and baby benefit from breastfeeding now and for a lifetime.