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When someone thinks about breastfeeding, many might first think of a mother and a child and a breast. Typically though, that mother has a support person, who may be the father of her baby, her husband, her boyfriend, her girlfriend, her sister, her wife, her mother, her mother-in-law…I could keep going. The point is, this mother and child do not come alone. They are part of a family.  And in this day and age, “family” can mean many different combinations. Today, I am writing specifically for the family where a male figure, or father, is the support person. Why? Because I strongly believe that the father is being unnecessarily excluded from breastfeeding support groups and his presence makes a large difference in the successful breastfeeding outcome of this mother and child.

Let’s start from the beginning. When a pregnant woman enrolls into a childbirth class of any sort, the father is expected to come.  When a woman enrolls into a breastfeeding class, the father is expected to attend.  When a woman is in labor, the father is {now} expected to be by her side, supporting and guiding her through. Their combined knowledge is needed at this special time. After all, most of the time, the father is the one who created this child with her and will be co-parenting this child.  When a mother breastfeeds her child, having the support of the father of the baby is largely equated with a longer duration of exclusivity of breastfeeding, longer overall breastfeeding duration, and more successful experiences.

That makes sense, right?  If the person who is by our side most of the time believes in what we are doing and understands breastfeeding, it makes it easier.  After all, who is right next to a mother and child in the dark hours of the night when things can be the hardest and mothers often feel the most vulnerable?  The father is.

Breastfeeding isn’t always easy. It can be a struggle for many mothers and babies. And one of the keys to her success is having a place to go for support, information, resources, and to be surrounded by other women’s {breastfeeding} wisdom.  There are many community organizations and resources for women to be able to get breastfeeding support.  But it is not uncommon for the general attitude to be a mother/baby only event and to exclude fathers.  These places are the perfect place for the fathers to come.   Many of us lactavists encourage an expectant mother to come to breastfeeding support groups as soon as possible during the pregnancy. This allows the mother to begin her learning process, to feel more comfortable in the setting, and get to know the other breastfeeding mothers.  When a mother does this early in her pregnancy, she may be able to avoid some common pitfalls in the early weeks of breastfeeding.

So here is the hiccup:  Wouldn’t we also encourage the father to come to these groups, particularly if he is interested and willing?  Remember, the expectation for the childbirth classes, breastfeeding classes and during labor and birth is that the father will be there. But then the father is to be excluded from the community breastfeeding support groups?  Excluding a father from these settings does the mother and child a disservice.

Interestingly enough, even La Leche League, considered the world’s foremost authority on breastfeeding and probably the largest and oldest breastfeeding support group organization, recognizes the power of the father’s involvement.

Breastfeeding is enhanced and the nursing couple sustained by the loving support, help, and companionship of the baby’s father. A father’s unique relationship with his baby is an important element in the child’s development from early infancy.”

So why the exclusion of fathers from any kind of breastfeeding support group? Some might argue that the groups are only for the mothers and babies. Others argue that it is a vulnerable time for these mothers, and having a male in attendance may make some other women at the group uncomfortable. Others argue that we want the mothers to have a “safe” place to breastfeed freely and if a male is there, she will feel as though he is ogling.  I’ve also heard others argue that we must offer a “special” additional group where we invite fathers, and this is the only time that is appropriate for fathers to be at breastfeeding support groups.

I understand all of these arguments, yet I do not believe they are reasons to generally exclude fathers from these groups. Could there be a situation where a father is at a meeting with his wife and new baby, and a woman there is having nipple pain and needs private assistance? Yes. In fact, I will argue that even if there are no males in that group setting, this mother will still want private assistance from someone when they are in a corner, or other room, which many lactation professionals instinctively offer anyway.  I’m sure someone could always ask a father to be excused for a moment, were a special situation to arise, and he would understand.

Fathers bring many things to these groups.  But I love this one, they bring an extra set of ears!!!! When a couple comes to the support group, they leave having heard different messages, or interpretations, and often come away with a more complete set of information as compared to only the mother’s set of ears.

Including the father is a great opportunity for education. As lactation professionals, we are very passionate about breastfeeding. We know the struggles mothers may undergo.  Struggles including; early return to work, night-time feedings, nipple pain, low milk supply, over-supply, sleepy babies, hungry babies, crying babies, spitty babies, nursing in public, pumping during separation, mastitis, plugged ducts and more. These struggles are not uncommon, yet we strive to assist these mothers avoid these and more importantly OVERCOME them. Any time a mother is struggling, she is vulnerable. She needs accurate information and support.  And guess what, if the father is educated about breastfeeding; he can be of great support to her.  He can help the mother and baby OVERCOME this hurdle and remind her about what they’ve learned, heard or seen.

In contrast to having the father be educated about breastfeeding, imagine a mother who is struggling and the father being very uneducated about breastfeeding. What may happen?

Let’s look at the very common scenario of a 4-day-old baby who is nursing almost every hour and through most of the night. The mom is tired and frustrated and beginning to think that the baby is nursing so much because she doesn’t have enough milk and she is scared. She wonders if maybe she should give a bottle of formula, or maybe just let the baby suck on a pacifier since the baby did just finish feeding 20 minutes ago. Surely there is no possible way the baby could need to nurse again?!!! Does this all sound familiar? The father is right next to her in bed and it is 2:00am. He hears all of this.  And ideally, he cares very much about his wife’s mental and emotional health and just wants to help make her better.  So how does he do this? Well this depends on his {breastfeeding} knowledge.

So if you have a father who is very educated about breastfeeding, he is going to encourage her that it is normal, remind her about the need for the baby to nurse frequently, the infant’s small {nature-intended} stomach capacity, bring her attention to the baby’s diaper output as an indication that the baby is ‘getting enough’, remind her that pacifiers should be avoided for the first 4-6 weeks and calm her down. He will reassure her and that is what she needs!

If you have a father who is uneducated about breastfeeding, he may hear her fear and since he doesn’t understand the process of lactation and normal feeding behaviors of newborns, he may concur that a pacifier would be a good idea, or think himself that frequent feeding is a reason for formula supplementation, and then begin getting fearful himself.  And you can imagine how slippery this slope is and how quickly breastfeeding may be compromised.

You can see how having fathers who have accurate information about breastfeeding can positively impact a mother’s breastfeeding success.  So what a better place for a father to begin his education than at a breastfeeding support group!   At the support group they will hear accurate, practical breastfeeding information.  The group facilitator can speak about a father’s or mother’s concerns related to breastfeeding in a confident and educated voice. A father hearing this information first hand will often accept this information much easier than had he not heard it for himself and someone just passed along this information to him second hand.

There is plenty of research-based evidence supporting the idea of including fathers rather than excluded fathers.

A 2005 study finds that “teaching fathers how to prevent and to manage the most common lactation difficulties is associated with higher rates of full breastfeeding at 6 months…this study is the first controlled clinical trial showing that fathers play a significant role in supporting successful lactation and increasing breastfeeding rates.” [Pediatrics Vol. 116 No. 4 October 1, 205 pp. e494 –e498 (doi: 10.1542/peds.2005-0479)]

“The Social Ecological Framework recognizes that individuals make health decisions in the context of many layers of influential relationships and information.” [Louisiana Breastfeeding Coalition] This image demonstrates the many layers of influence that affect breastfeeding decisions. Especially pertinent is the layer closest to mother and baby, family members!  Breastfeeding support groups fall into the layer two layers further away under lactation professionals. Other [breastfeeding] mothers fall into the same layer as her family members; which are closest to the mother herself.  And of course, fellow mothers who attend the breastfeeding support group would fall into this category.

Breastfeeding Support Circles

Image from Larry Grummer-Strawn, PhD: CDC-USBC Bi-Monthly Teleconferences, Tuesday, February 8, 2011.

 

You will also see this study of 586 families, completed in Brazil, where they came to the conclusion that, “Paternal inclusion significantly increased the rates of exclusive breastfeeding but not the rates of any breastfeeding.”  [Journal of Human Lactation November 2008 Vol. 24 No. 24: 386-392]

The Fatherhood Institute in March 2007 compiled a “Research Summary; Fathers and Breastfeeding”, that cites study after study supporting the link between a mother’s success and exclusivity of breastfeeding and the educated [breastfeeding] support of the father.  That summary may be found here, http://www.fatherhoodinstitute.org/2007/fatherhood-institute-research-summary-fathers-and-breastfeeding/

I think any mom will tell you how much it means to her to have the support of the father of the baby. As a lactation professional myself, I feel it is my job to support the breastfeeding family. The family includes the father, and any support and education I can give the family will help them reach their breastfeeding goal. I give breastfeeding education and breastfeeding support and do not discriminate with regard to age, religion, origin, race, color or sex. The more people who have the most accurate, up-to-date information about breastfeeding, the more breastfeeding we will have.  I will continue to invite expectant and new mothers to bring their support people, regardless of sex, to any and every breastfeeding support group that they desire, because I know this helps the greater good of breastfeeding, and that is my goal!

Summer J. Mayse, IBCLC, LLLL, AAHCC, CBE, CCE