Right, before we get into this one, let’s be clear on my personal opinion: I advocate breastfeeding wherever possible. I believe it can be the best start for a child and I believe in the benefits of it. That said, I do not decry those that choose not to breastfeed, as long as it is an informed decision and has been taken in the best interests of the family, given the personal circumstances.
Ok, that’s that out of the way! So what do I have to say on the subject?
Simple, I get more and more fed up with the discussions I see taking place… I am fed up with media and their use of terms like breastfeeding zealots, breastfeeding Nazis or even Breastapo. But I am also sick of the attacks on families that have chosen to not breastfeed or for medical reason, cannot breastfeed. Yes it is true, depending on what research you read, between 1 and 5% have a medical reason for not being able to personally breastfeed. Even if it’s only 3%, that’s still over 18,000 mums a year in the UK alone who can’t. Yes, there are now milk banks, or milk sharing networks, but this are not widely available, or advertised. Unfortunately, they are also viewed as very ‘hippy’. It has also been a long while since wet nurses were commonly used, so to some the thought of it being another woman’s milk being given to their baby, for some reason repulses them.
There is still so much general discussion about the amount of women that give up in the first two weeks, or percentage who are still feeding at 3 or 6 months, and how we need to support more women to continue breastfeeding. This almost becomes self-defeating, the cycle that occurs from this are feelings of being under pressure, leading to fear of ‘failure’ and the guilt associated with that, which then allows the media to use the terms they do. Yes, a lot of women get great support that really helps, but also a lot of women also struggle, hide their struggle because they feel guilty or scared of being criticised or judged, turn to formula, AGAIN hiding this because they feel guilty or scared of being criticised or judged. I have known many women who have even hidden the formula cartons away when they know the midwife/health visitor is coming to visit, rather than ask for help.
BUT that isn’t what I want to make people think about, I want to draw attention to the crucial element that is being missed by breast feeding support workers, health visitors, midwives etc. Not all of them, but a large proportion.
DADS! Yes, dads. They are a crucial element to successful establishment and continuation. Again, those same dads, without adequate support to take a positive role, can also be the reason for failure to establish and all this is being ignored.
So why can Dads be the reason for failure to establish or continue breastfeeding?
There are two main reasons. Firstly, there is what I refer to as the male ‘fix it reflex’. When us men see our loved ones in distress, pain or despair our natural instinct is to ‘fix it’. And being men, we tend to look for practical ways to do this. Without proper support and understanding, this is what can make us men a liability, during pregnancy, during labour and when baby is born! We don’t do it out of malice, we don’t do it for self-gain, we simply want to help our loved one and ‘fix’ the problem. In breastfeeding, this can manifest itself when our loved one may be struggling to establish breastfeeding, or generally just finding it hard, especially in those first few weeks! For many men, if we see what we perceive to be our loved ones in difficulty, we will try to help, and often this will include (when all else seems to not be working) to reach for the formula. Why? Simply because it is an almost immediate, practical, solution, no other reason. We understand breastfeeding offers the best start for our baby, but at the time our ‘fix it reflex’ takes over, and we want to help. The decision to formula feed has been taken out of the hands of our partner, which can create a negative spiral of guilt, denial and then the very real difficulties associated with the impact mixed feeding can have on milk production… ultimately possibly leading to them discontinuing breastfeeding.
The second reason is a little more complicated. Now, men if not properly prepared, can feel excluded in a household of baby and breastfeeding mum. They can end up feeling a bit of a spare part or dogs body, if nobody has supported them, prepared them and told them how to help support their family, is that really such a revelation? If this continues, it can also turn to resentment, a feeling of exclusion, and lead to male postnatal depression. Those early days in general are quite a stressful time, complete with the torture that is sleep deprivation for the whole family.
I’m sure many of us will agree, even if just privately, at this time we didn’t always act rationally, and again this is the case here. Generally it will be men that first bring formula into the house. Normally stating “just in case of emergency” or “better to be prepared” or something along those lines. Men long for an opportunity to simply get involved with feeding, so if opportunity presents itself they will jump at the chance, often this is through the use of formula they bought “just in case”.
Unfortunately there is a growing attitude that even expressing is not really a good idea. Yes, I know it can lead to problems, but again, understanding and preparation here is essential, and many families make this work very successfully. Men do want to share that feeling, the one women get when they are feeding their baby and can gaze into their eyes, that moment of very special connection. We men can become very jealous of that connection, especially when you also consider some of the issues I discuss in my blog on antenatal bonding. For most men they don’t feel like they are dad until baby is born, so this bonding process can be inhibited in these circumstances.
I’m not saying all men will do all, or some of the above, but a lot will. Simply, either out of misguided idea of helping our family, or simply not understanding our role. Just waiting for an opportunity, so we can become more involved.
This has all sounded very negative, Dads can do so much if properly supported and prepared. If they understand how to become involved, and are given a sense of purpose, so many of these possible pitfalls can be avoided. Dads, when mum is feeding baby, sit with her, talk with her and talk to your baby. Bring mum a drink whilst she is feeding, that simple act has so many benefits both physically and emotionally. Take a proactive role in what comes after the feed, the winding the sleepy post-feed cuddle…
I believe our current antenatal education system needs to be addressed, it needs to be MORE dad inclusive. It is why we discuss breastfeeding within DaddyNatal… it is why I prepare dads for the feelings (positive and negative) they may start to feel. It is why I give dads a list of things they can do in support of a breastfeeding partner. It is why I make dads aware of their ‘fix it reflex’ and teach them at times like this to sit on their hands. It is why I give dads a sense of purpose and get them to share in the feeling of achievement, if they as a family have chosen to breastfeed and are successfully doing so.
There is so much more I want to write on this subject and at a later date I will re visit it. I will also publish my tips and advice for Breastfeeding Dads. Go on try that term because successful breastfeeding, like all aspects of parenting is easier if everyone is pulling together. So yes, dads should breastfeed too, figuratively speaking!