I responded on twitter to a recent post by DaddyBeGood about breastfeeding, ostensibly about how dads can get involved so they don’t feel like a spare limb. Now, there is substantial research literature about the impact on breastfeeding of a supportive and informed partner, including the paper I studied earlier this year. I am absolutely behind helping dads to help mums to breastfeed, but I think it’s a complex subject, and get frustrated by that lowest common denominator, the suggestion that dad can only help by giving baby a bottle of expressed milk.
I don’t wish to be harshly critical of the original post, but I would like to add some more ideas, and to explain why giving a bottle might not actually be that helpful.
I also want to put out there the suggestion that babies might benefit from their different carers loving them in different ways; a parent who does not feed the baby is giving love that is not associated with food. Might this be healthy for the child’s emotional development, and helpful for someone who wants to be able to settle and comfort the child without the assistance of lactating breasts?
Not a lot of bottle
Antenatally, I hear both mums- and dads-to-be ask about expressing milk, so that dad can give a bottle. I suspect that the dads are not always as enthusiastic about doing that 2am feed as their partners want them to be. I suspect also that mums are anxious about the responsibility of being the sole feeder, especially if breastfeeding is as difficult as they have heard it is. There’s also that survival thing where new mums are unconsciously determined to bond dad to baby so as not to be abandoned. And yes, of course some mums don’t want to breastfeed, and that’s their right.
But is it really so straightforward: Dad gives bottle, dad and baby bond, mum gets much-needed break?
Expressing is a chore. If breastfeeding is straightforward, then expressing is not going to be an easier option. Parents of newborn babies are usually experiencing a period of flux and uncertainty, and finding time to express a bottle of milk can be a challenge. Night-time breastfeeding can be less disruptive to everyone’s sleep than getting up to fetch and warm a bottle (and there’s no guarantee mum won’t wake anyway, either because baby cries while waiting for the bottle, or because the longer gap between feeds means, ironically, that she has to express some milk). Expressing milk is less efficient than breastfeeding, and it can knock mums’ confidence to find that it’s hard to pump large volumes of milk. It is not necessarily any quicker to bottle-feed a newborn than to breastfeed. And in those early days when mum’s milk supply is regulating to meet her baby’s need, expressing milk can upset the balance.
So what else can dad do?
To me, the idea that any carer must give a bottle in order to bond with a baby is one of the biggest booby traps of all.
When I meet new families to provide breastfeeding support, I see dads who are totally immersed in the experience of feeding their babies, and their focus is 100% on getting breastfeeding to work so that they can get away from the tyranny of expressing milk. Yes, men feel like a spare limb when they see their partner and child struggling with something as essential as feeding, but they are also learning very quickly what their part in the team is. There’s plenty of research on the benefits of skin to skin contact, and this does not just apply to mothers. Babies get comfort from being close to their fathers, from his familiar smell, the sound of his heartbeat, the rhythm of his breathing, the rumble of his voice. They get antibodies from his immune system. They get social stimulus from him making faces, amusement from him singing to them, security from his arms.
Bonding has the same chemical basis as falling in love: oxytocin and endorphins. If you listened in your antenatal class then you know how to increase levels of these hormones: through relaxation, laughter, touch, eye contact. So any interaction with your child that involves responding to their need for comfort will facilitate bonding. Responding to your baby’s needs helps them to trust you and to feel safe. You don’t have to be armed with a bottle of expressed milk to achieve this.
Dads can give mum a break not by interrupting the flow of breastfeeding, but by interacting with baby at other times. They can carry a colicky baby around in a sling or a baby carrier, bath baby (or bath with the baby), give the baby a massage. They can keep mum company during periods of intense feeding, help her to get comfortable, keep her fed and watered, and give her a hug when it’s needed.
Above everything else, dads can help their partners by getting informed about breastfeeding, and enabling them to access help if they need it.