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Role of the Father in the Breastfeeding Family

Many men mistakenly believe that breastfeeding is strictly confined to women and babies. They see their role as that of a passive or neutral outside observer who has little influence on the process. A common complaint from fathers of breastfed babies is that they tend to feel excluded from the intimacy of the nursing dyad. But fathers actually have tremendous potential to either facilitate or undermine the success of breastfeeding. Understanding the importance of their role is the first step in equipping fathers to help their breastfeeding partners.

Setting the Family Tone
The first thing a father can do to promote success is to create a positive family atmosphere toward breastfeeding. If he views breastfeeding as making a positive difference in the health and well-being of his baby and as a high priority for his partner and child, this attitude will set the desired tone for achieving success. As a practical matter, breastfed babies need to accompany their mothers whenever possible. A father who views a baby's continual presence as intrusive will subtly undermine breastfeeding. The father who naturally assumes that his baby will accompany the couple to restaurants, movies, dinner parties, and meetings has given breastfeeding his strong endorsement. While a few men actually persuade their partners to breastfeed, more often the mother's motivation to nurse exceeds the father's commitment. But there's a big difference between a man who agrees to let his partner breastfeed and one who deliberately creates an atmosphere of success.

Giving Support and Encouragement
Breastfeeding can be emotionally demanding, physically exhausting, and uncomfortable at times. Virtually all new mothers experience doubts about their ability to care for a helpless newborn. Breastfeeding mothers harbor additional fears about the adequacy of their milk supply or the correctness of their breastfeeding technique, or their ability to overcome lactation problems. Fathers can play a key role in bolstering their breastfeeding partner's confidence by showering them with compliments, praising their efforts, and offering words of encouragement. This support role can be particularly difficult when a woman is profoundly tired and discouraged. When a woman is under extreme stress, a man may not know how best to support his mate. He may be uncertain whether she wants to hear, "Don't give up; you can do it!" or "You've done your best. It's okay to switch to bottle-feeding." If you are not sure how to respond to your partner, try explaining that you don't know exactly what to say, but you want to support her in any way you can. Just being a sounding board might be all she needs on a specific day. You can offer valuable perspective, unclouded judgment, or even a sense of humor that defuses tension. Other times, you might be able to mobilize some specific help for a breastfeeding problem by calling the doctor, a lactation consultant, the hospital where your baby was born, or La Leche League.

Providing Practical Help
A father can help in so many ways that it's hard to imagine why many men feel left out when their wives breastfeed. A father can go to the baby when he or she awakens and bring the hungry infant to his wife. While the mother is nursing, he can pour her a nutritious beverage, massage her shoulders, compliment her, and lovingly admire his nursing baby. After the first breast, he can burp the baby and help arouse the infant for the second side. When the feeding is complete, the father can change the infant and put him or her down to sleep.

I recently met a wonderful father who made a commitment to take Mondays off in order to spend more time with his baby and let his wife get some extra rest. On Mondays, he performed all the baby care except for nursings, answered the phone and protected his wife, let her get away by herself for a short period if she desired, and was present for moral support and companionship. Mondays turned out to be more than a gift to his wife: they provided this man with an opportunity to build his confidence in his role as a father, and helped him foster a unique relationship with his baby.

Building a Relationship with the Baby
Although the reciprocal interaction between a breastfeeding baby and her mother is one of the strongest bonds in nature, this doesn't diminish the importance of a baby's early relationship with her father. Instead of feeling left out of the nursing relationship, fathers can and should cultivate their own unique bond with their baby. Much has been written lately about the enormous problem of "father hunger" among American children. As a result of divorce, single parenthood, and emotionally remote fathers, countless children grow up with little or no contact with their fathers. I can't over-emphasize how important a father is in the life of his children. Today, nearly 40 percent of America's children do not live with their father. Not only has fatherlessness become the single most important determinant of child poverty, fatherless children are at increased risk for violence, criminal activity, drug abuse, school failure, joining a gang, and other social problems. Children deserve the right to have a healthy, loving relationship with two parents, and fathers deserve to know the truth about their vital role. We have failed to communicate to men just how important they are in their children's lives, starting at birth.

As a father, begin by connecting with your child through touch, one of the most powerfully developed senses at birth. You can hold, carry, rock, caress, massage, and stroke your baby and let her fall asleep against your bare chest. Newborn babies can see best at a distance of eight to twelve inches. When your baby is in a quiet alert state, she is most receptive to engaging visually. She prefers to look at the human face over any other visual stimulus. She already recognizes your voice from hearing it while in the uterus. Babies respond best to a higher-pitched voice, so don't be embarrassed to use baby talk with her. She'll love it. You can sing to her, read to her, or make silly noises. Within a few months, babies already perceive their fathers as principal sources of play and motor movement, different-but no less important than-mothers. If your wife is more adept at comforting, bathing, diapering, and entertaining your baby, don't be tempted to let her be the main infant caretaker. Instead, explain that you want to become competent at caring for and nurturing your baby. Ask her to show you how to perform certain infant-care tasks. Arrange to care for your baby alone, starting with very brief periods, until you feel you don't need to be "rescued" by the baby's mother. Fathers tell me there's a big difference between being "on my own-just me and the baby" and merely "helping out," with Mom looking over their shoulder to see if they're doing everything right.

Mom, don't come to your partner's rescue as soon as your baby starts to cry. Allow Dad opportunities to soothe or entertain the baby or sing her to sleep. Worry less about whether he is "doing things right," so long as he is "doing the right thing." One wise mother decided not to correct her husband when he put the newborn's disposable diaper on backward the first time. A loving father's sincere attempt to participate in infant care is more important than whether the clothing snaps are in proper alignment.

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From Dr. Mom's Guide to Breastfeeding by Marianne R. Neifert. Copyright © 1998 by Marianne R. Neifert. Used by arrangement with Plume, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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