Ask DadPad, Parenting Advice
Ask DadPad: How can I support my partner with breastfeeding?
Posted on 7th August 2020
Today’s blog post has been written with the help of another of our new DadPad team members, Georgie Watson, who knows a thing or two about breastfeeding. Georgie’s a mum of two, has trained as a doula, and is currently the Chair of Kernow Maternity Voices Partnership here in Cornwall, working with families and health professionals to support the transformation of maternity services in the UK. We’ll share more info on Georgie – and her role here at DadPad – in the coming weeks.
Throughout August – the first week of which is #WorldBreastfeedingWeek – we’re going to be sharing with you hints, tips, information and guidance on breastfeeding, in order to help you become the best breastfeeding supporter to your baby’s mum that you can. Looking at the research statistics out there, we feel that this is needed – for example:
- According to the 2010 UK-wide Infant Feeding Survey:
- 81% of mums started breastfeeding from birth
- Only 34% were still breastfeeding at six months
- Only 24% of babies in England were still being exclusively breastfed (i.e. no formula milk etc) at six weeks
- Only 17% were being exclusively breastfed at three months
- Only 12% were being exclusively breastfed at four months
- Only 1% were being exclusively breastfed at six months
- However, 80% of the mums who had stopped breastfeeding during the first six weeks said that they would have liked to have continued feeding for longer
- Evidence gathered by Sheriff, Hall and Panton (2013) suggests “that fathers being knowledgeable about breast feeding [has] the potential to increase continuance of breast feeding“
- 92% of the fathers questioned in the 2019 Fathers and Breastfeeding online survey said that “they needed more information in order to be able better to support their partner’s breastfeeding“
- 92% of that same group of fathers also reported “not seeing any breastfeeding information for fathers”
- 93% of that same group of fathers “disagree with the idea that ‘breastfeeding is none of their business’“
In this – our second of four planned blog posts on aspects of breastfeeding which we will be publishing during August 2020 – we are going to share with you some suggestions on how you, as a new dad, can best support your partner in the early days of breastfeeding. We’re also going to reassure you that there will still be lots of opportunities for you to bond with your baby, even if you aren’t able to be directly involved with his feeding. The post will be supported by tips and comments from real-life parents, alongside research evidence.
We’ll follow this post up with:
- a third, dealing with some of the ‘myths’ that surround breastfeeding, as well as ideas for sources of support; and
- a final blog, giving you information on the ‘mechanics’ of breastfeeding, to help you better understand the process in order to be the best hands-on support to mum that you can
Where do I start?
It’s important to remember that breastfeeding is a learned skill which takes time for both mum and baby to get the hang of. It’s therefore essential that you help mum feel as comfortable and well-supported as possible. As a dad, you have a vital role to play to help get breastfeeding off to a good start by offering practical and emotional support to your partner in the early days and weeks.
Some practical breastfeeding tips…
Some of our top tips – which you and mum might like to talk about and prepare for before baby is born – for providing practical support to a new breastfeeding mum are:
- Make sure that her water bottle is refilled regularly – recovering from birth and establishing breastfeeding is all hot, thirsty work, so it’s important for mum to stay hydrated. Using a water bottle means that there is no risk of spilling, and you could also look out for a model that enables the water to stay cooler for longer.
- Top tip: “Make sure that she has a drink beside her at all times.” [Beth Louise K – via Facebook]
- Support mum by ensuring that she is easily able to access food – breastfeeding burns calories and a post-birth mum needs nourishment. On a day when you’re not going to be around, you could leave a pre-prepared meal in the fridge for her to grab and reheat. You could also supply her with healthy snacks whilst feeding, and consider practical ways to ensure that she manages to eat her meals when (inevitably) baby will also require to be fed.
- Top tip: “One of my best ‘new mum’ memories was when my husband made me mid-morning fried egg sandwiches, without being asked, to keep me going from breakfast until lunch. I gobbled them down in between breastfeeds and they always tasted amazing! Simple, but just what I needed.” [Hannah B – mum of two, from Cornwall]
- Top tip: “I cut up my wife’s food so that she could eat one handed at the dinner table, which meant we got to eat together, otherwise we had to take it in turns to eat.” [Neil T – via Facebook]
- And you could even follow the lead of Dwayne The Rock Johnson and feed baby’s mum her dinner if needed…
I’ll handle this business ???Mama has her hands full nursing/feeding Baby Tia, so I’m feedin’ mama her dinner. My…
- Set up a “baby station” around mum’s chosen feeding place(s) – this should have all the essentials close at hand, in order to make life easier for you both. For example, mum will be feeling sore in the early days after birth, so think about making the spot as comfy as possible. She’ll also want cushions or pillows around her to help support her back and support baby in his feeding position. Muslin cloths are useful for wiping up any spills, and mum will also possibly want to have items which help protect her nipples – e.g. nipple cream, breast pads, etc – nearby.
- Ensure that she has the TV remote, a good book or magazine, her phone and/or digital devices within easy reach – there is nothing more annoying than settling down for a long feed and realising that you can’t change the channel/read/answer the phone!
- Have helpful contacts close at hand and don’t be afraid to ask for help – it’s common for breastfeeding mums to need support and guidance in the early days. There are midwives, health visitors, and volunteers with specialist training in your local community, so make sure that you know how to contact them and support your partner to access them. It’s a good idea to be around when your partner is receiving support, so that you can continue to support her well at home.
It’s not just about making her a drink, though…
- What does the research say? “Support from family is acknowledged as critical to the success of breastfeeding, and father-influence is strong, diverse and far more complex than just being the mother’s helper (or ‘putting the kettle on’).” Howl, J (2019) p13
You may be thinking to yourself right now, “where do I factor in all of this?”, and you are quite right to believe that you have a VERY important part to play in caring for your baby, as well as needing the opportunity to bond, too. In the early days, mum and baby need plenty of time to ensure that breastfeeding gets off to as good a start as possible. Learning how to position and latch a baby takes practice and it isn’t always a straightforward process.
- What does the research say? “Teaching fathers how to prevent and manage the most common lactation difficulties and to advocate for breastfeeding and assist their partner have been found to have a marked, positive impact on breastfeeding initiation and continuation.” Howl, J (2019) p14
You can help make this experience as stress-free as possible by working as a family unit:
- Know your underarm from your laid-back hold – look up different breastfeeding positions and support your partner to explore which ones suit her best. There are lots of positions in which she can breastfeed your baby, and each one has its benefits. Mum may need physical support to move from one to another, especially when she is recovering from birth.
- Get inventive – use cushions and rolled-up towels to help your partner find a sustainable breastfeeding position. Little tweaks really do make the biggest difference when you’re having to stay in one position for a prolonged amount of time. Making sure your partner’s feet, hips, back, neck and arms are well-supported means that she will be able to relax into the feed more easily.
- Be a second set of eyes and ears – you are in the perfect position to be able to help mum get the baby’s latch and positioning right. Being with mum when receiving breastfeeding support will give you a clear idea of what to look out for, and you will be able to see things that she can’t from her perspective. Making sure that baby’s latch and positioning is on point ensures that baby feeds well and that the experience is pain-free for mum – little adjustments can make all the difference!
- “My (then) husband rang a support line, who told him to check the latch (what?) and he relayed the information to me, a snotty, sobbing mess on the sofa moaning ‘nothing works!!’. His patience paid off and I managed a different latch, a different position, eventually my nipples healed and before too long I could feed and read a book, feed and put baby down, feed and pass to dad, feed and finally feel more positive.” [Jeszemma H – mum of three, from the West Midlands]
But what about my need to bond with baby?
One of the things that DadPad Director, Julian, hears regularly from new parents is that – by mum breastfeeding the baby – dad has lost his chance to bond, and that many couples therefore feel that bottle-feeding is the better option.
The research evidence also reflects this:
- What does the research say? “A desire for the father to have opportunities to be close to the baby can be a factor in some mothers opting to cease breastfeeding…” Howl, J (2019) p15
It can be difficult – as a new dad – to feel that you are being excluded from a really important part of your baby’s early life.
- “Offering practical support to a breast feeding mum is different to offering support to a formula feeding mum… to help a breast feeding mum requires more imagination and willingness to want to help. Most people see helping with the baby as fun time, they will take it and give it a bottle and that’s fun for them. With a breast feeding mum giving the baby a bottle isn’t an option – it’s taking them for a walk, doing the housework while you [the mother] feed the baby or other jobs that you don’t have the time or energy to do while you’re breastfeeding.” [Mother ‘M4’ – Sheriff, Hall & Panton (2014)]
- “I was jealous at some points. He seemed to enjoy feeding. He either slept or cried the rest of the time but feeding was the happy bit. I couldn’t do that.” [Dad – Brown & Davies (2014)]
- “I asked the midwife what I could do to help my wife. She said cook her dinner, bath the baby and so on. I understood that but I wanted to help and join in with the feeding experience and I couldn’t. I was annoyed.” [Dad – Brown & Davies (2014)]
We understand these feelings, and it’s completely natural to experience them – it doesn’t make you a ‘bad dad’ or a ‘bad partner’. However, it’s also worth remembering that there will be plenty of opportunities to get involved with feeding in the not-so-distant future (e.g. when baby starts on solids), and also that so many of the other things that you can do to support mum will help you to build up an attachment to and closeness with your baby, and can be just as much fun:
- Get stuck in! – there are plenty of things you can do, aside from feeding your baby, in order to bond. Washing, dressing and changing your baby provides ample opportunity to interact with him in the early days. In between feeds, you can make time for mum to refresh, eat or rest by just having the baby. You could go out for a short walk, take baby with you to another room, or simply have a snuggle together. We’ve got more ideas on this in our baby care and bonding articles.
- Top tip: “If we have to stop somewhere to breast feed, I’ll find somewhere… help cover her up, make sure she has water. I’ll get up in the night and bring the baby to her.” [Father ‘F2’ – Sheriff, Hall & Panton (2014)]
- Be present – just the simple act of sitting up at night with mum as she struggles with a night feed, letting her know that you’re there for (and with) her, hearing her frustrations, and telling her that she’s doing a fantastic job, or snuggling close to her (but do check that she’s comfortable with where you are, so that you’re not compromising her feeding position) and baby as they feed together, can really help all three of you to connect as a unit. You will get to experience the sights, smells and sounds of a breastfeeding baby pretty much first-hand, and that really is a magical moment.
- Rest and be thankful – you are entitled to just take the opportunity to chill out with mum and baby. Don’t forget that you are a new parent, too, so don’t feel pressured into being the ‘host with the most’ in the early weeks. Keep visits from family and friends short and convenient to you, to make sure that you have plenty of time to rest and just be with your new family unit. Going with the flow can help you more easily deal with the major life shift that a baby brings, and also creates the opportunity to make some life-long memories with your partner and baby.
The last days of pregnancy, labour and the early days of parenthood are an emotional experience for both you and your partner. The most important thing to do during this time is to keep communicating with each other and to share how you feel each day, because this will allow you to gain a better understanding of how to help one another through. Tiredness, hormones (yes, as a new dad, you will also be experiencing hormone changes) and self-doubt are normal feelings for all new parents; however, it is important to know what to protect yourselves from and what to watch out for in the early days.
- Growth spurts – babies go through regular periods of being unsettled and feeding more when they are growing or learning new things. Just when you think you’ve got into a good routine, a new development will disrupt your rhythm and it can feel really frustrating. Being able to identify these intense periods and enabling yourself to go with the flow does make it easier to cope with. It is also really common for mums to feel overwhelmed during these intense periods of breastfeeding.
- Tiredness – sleep deprivation does affect all parents and can have huge effects on your physical and emotional wellbeing. Days and nights can feel really long when your sleep is disrupted, so it is really important for both parents to make the time to rest when you can. Offering to take the baby away from mum for a few hours in the morning enables her to catch up on some missed sleep and will mean that you can also make time for a nap once she feels refreshed.
- Top tip: “My husband and I had an agreement that we wouldn’t make any drastic decisions about feeding in the middle of the night. Instead, we’d agree to discuss it again in the morning, when we’d both had some sleep and were feeling calmer. This enabled us to see things more clearly and for me to be able to stick to my plan of breastfeeding.” [Georgie W – mum of two, from Cornwall]
- Unhelpful comments and advice – family and friends will be keen to share their experiences of breastfeeding, whether good or bad. Whilst well-meaning, others’ experiences are their own and it can cause you and/or mum to doubt your own decisions. It is vital that mum’s desire to breastfeed isn’t undermined, and you can help to prevent this happening by making it clear that you support her choices, as well as pointing out when you think she is doing well.
- “It’s so important that dads are on board. I found it such a shock to the system when we had our first daughter – she was completely planned and we had been together 9-10 years, and then all of a sudden I had this traumatic delivery, was really quite poorly after it and my milk took ages to come in – like, a week. I was really panicking that she wasn’t getting enough food, but [my husband] was really calm and would always reassure me that we were doing the right thing. There were some nights when she would be feed, feed, feed and I didn’t know how I’d get through and he was honestly the thing that kept me going. He would give me pep talks and even a few times, when I was like “just go and get formula”, he would ask “are you absolutely sure you want that?”. I think as well it was just that I was able to say to him, “wow, I’m flipping exhausted” without him saying, “give up breastfeeding and I’ll help you with bottles.” He always just said, “you’re doing an amazing job” and he would give me all the pep talks I needed.” [Ashley T – mum of two, from Cornwall]
- Pressure – being your partner’s biggest supporter will be invaluable to her in getting breastfeeding off to a good start and continuing, but it can be interpreted as pressure if she feels that it isn’t going as well as she had hoped. It would therefore be a good idea to discuss with her what her feeding goals are before your baby is born and again when she is finding it challenging. This will enable you to understand how much to encourage her through any challenging periods, without making her feel pressured.
The good news is that, by 6-12 weeks, the majority of mums will have settled into a natural rhythm together, and breastfeeding should become second nature. Once this has happened, every aspect of parenting becomes much more manageable, and the opportunities for you to bond with your baby will continue to grow.
Further reading/sources of breastfeeding support:
- Fathers and Breastfeeding FAB WCMT Facebook group
- NCT webpage How can dads and partners support breastfeeding
- NHS breastfeeding info:
- Brown, A & Davies, R (2014) Fathers’ experiences of supporting breastfeeding: challenges for breastfeeding promotion and education.
- Howl, J (2019) Engaging Fathers in the Perinatal Period to Support Breastfeeding.
- Sherriff, N; Hall, V; and Panton, C (2013) Engaging and Supporting Fathers to Promote Breast Feeding: A Concept Analysis”. Midwifery 30 (2014) 667-677.