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Supporting your partner's breastfeeding

Published on: May 14, 2008

breastfeeding So your wife or partner is breastfeeding? Well, lucky you! That means you get to sleep through the night, save money on bottles and formula, and won't get dry, cracked hands from washing and sanitizing nipples in the wee hours of the morning, right?

Well ... partly! Granted, your hands will stay soft and you won't have to buy formula, but it doesn't mean you get off scot-free; your partner needs your support to make her breastfeeding experience less stressful and more enjoyable.

Help her get started
Many experienced moms and dads know a secret that only parents who have "been there" are privy to: Although breastfeeding seems like the most natural experience known to humankind, it can sometimes feel anything but natural. A new mom awkwardly reaches for a nipple shield at 2 a.m., struggling to remember how the lactation specialist said to use it ... or a new dad tries desperately to help get the baby latched while both mom and baby are crying. Both know that breastfeeding takes practice - and support.

Scott Giampino, a Seattle father and talent buyer for The Triple Door, recalls the moment he knew breastfeeding was not a slam dunk: "One look at mastitis ... hammered the fact that it was difficult! Plus, the baby bit sometimes. That can't be good!" Giampino says that he tried to be supportive, verbally and also physically. "It's hard to be continually empathetic, but that is all I could do in that setting. I tried to be supportive in letting her know that I knew that she would get it and that the baby would be OK."

"Early days of breastfeeding are a lot like labor: overwhelming, stressful and sometimes painful," says Barbara Orcutt, R.N., M.S., the coordinator of breastfeeding services at Seattle's Community Birth and Family Center. Orcutt says a new mom's partner can prepare food for her, make sure she has water handy to drink and a comfortable place to nurse baby. Whether it's a special chair, a nursing pillow or a footstool, certain tools will help her in the process.

Get ready to help
Orcutt recommends that husbands and partners prepare to help by reading books about breastfeeding while their partner's still pregnant. If the partner knows the stages of milk production, knows how to tell if the baby is getting enough and what a proper latch looks like, he or she will be much more supportive and able to help.

Orcutt says that stress reduction is as important during breastfeeding as it is in labor, so a gentle neck massage, good music or kind and gentle words of support can be therapeutic to mom. "What is not helpful is saying something like, ‘I do not think the baby is getting enough' or ‘Do you think your milk is rich enough?'" says Orcutt.

If the partner can stay positive - especially when making suggestions - success is much more likely. Remember, she's trying her best. It can be frustrating, humbling and unbelievably aggravating for a woman to feel like she is not good at breastfeeding.

Tonya Ward, a Maple Valley mother of two, chose not to breastfeed her babies, but has supported her breastfeeding friends through patience and a listening ear. "I have sat in many bathroom lounge areas with my girlfriends while they breastfed their babies - or their homes or my home or wherever the place may be. Just sitting and talking, for a little adult conversation, I think, is the biggest help," she says.

What if she's not breastfeeding?
If your wife or partner is not breastfeeding, it is important that her choice is respected and honored, not doubted and challenged. Ward says that she tells her friends who are about to become moms to make the decision that suits them best and not do what people tell them they should do. "I think society in general tends to try to guilt new moms into breastfeeding, when it's such a personal choice. It should be wholeheartedly left up to the mom and whatever she is most comfortable with."

Ward feels that the breastfeeding decision should not be left up to a husband or partner. "Honestly, I felt like since it was my body, it was my decision. I know that sounds awfully selfish, but I couldn't imagine putting the same demands on him if it were his body."

Ward says that her husband and extended family supported her choice not to breastfeed, but she did not feel the same support from her in-laws. "They all have breastfed all of their kids, and I am sure they had no idea why I would chose not to. Philosophically, no one ever really asked why I chose not to, but logistically they definitely helped by being able to feed the babies and let me rest if I needed to, or just get that break in the everyday routine." Ward continues, "Lots of people were able to feed both of my kids, and I know that both grandmas really enjoyed the experience."

If it's not by choice that a mom's not breastfeeding, understand that she may go through a period of grief. Orcutt says that if the mother has tried to nurse and it didn't work out, reminding her of what she did to try to successfully breastfeed can be helpful. Ward recommends that fathers and partners participate in as many feedings as they can and enjoy the quiet bonding experience that bottle-feeding a baby can provide.

Father nursing
Though Scott Giampino's wife did nurse their baby, he wasn't content to sit on the sidelines. "We ... bought a tiny little device where I could hold the baby and essentially breastfeed," he says. "It was a little bottle that I could pin to my shirt, and it had a tiny tube running out of it that I taped to my finger, and Max could suck on my finger and drink." He said that being able to feed his son in this way gave Max's mom a break. "I tried to take Max as often as I could ... so Mom could get some sleep or watch TV or even eat! This working as a team helped strengthen our relationship."

There are many iterations of "father nursing," and different scenarios will work best for different families. The most important thing is that the mother and father parent their child and respect each other's parenting strengths. Orcutt says that sometimes the father may want to take over for the mother when she finishes nursing at bedtime, and can comfort the baby, rock her and put her to sleep. Others simply find that having Daddy in charge for certain time periods throughout the day works well, so that he learns how to care for the baby. This builds confidence in his parenting abilities and may encourage him to stay involved.

"Barry Brazelton has another suggestion: that partners are not secondary mothers, but bring their own unique skills and attributes," Orcutt says. "Helping them find their role strengthens attachment to the baby." Dad might be the hilarious guy who whirls baby around and kisses her belly until she giggles. He might be the guy who comes home at the end of baby's day and is the calming force with his deep voice, his tender ways of bathing her, putting her PJs on and reading a bedtime story until she falls off to sleep. Whatever his style, he's bonding with his child and providing a much needed break for the mother.

Karen Dawson is a freelance writer and mom. She lives in Maple Valley.


Suggestions for partners
Nancy Held, registered nurse and vice president of clinical and education services at DayOne Centers, Inc. offers these suggestions for fathers/partners:

  • Be enthusiastic and knowledgeable about breastfeeding.
  • Find other ways to help with the baby, such as bathing, soothing, rocking, diapering, massaging, carrying and burping.
  • Get up early with the baby so the mom can rest a little longer.
  • Offer water, juice and other liquids to the mom to help keep her hydrated and help maintain her milk supply.
  • Provide the mom with quick, easy snacks that she can eat with one hand.
  • Keep visitors to a minimum so that everyone can rest.
  • Provide reassurance and encouragement.


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