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Dads Breastfeed Too

[Editor's Note: A Stay-at-Home Dad and Community Development Worker with the Father&Child Trust, Harald Breiding-Buss lives in Christchurch, New Zealand. Unless otherwise noted, trends and statistics quoted refer to that country.]

Something is different with men these days.

Wherever you look you see dads pushing prams and entertaining babies with funny noises or faces. The increased involvement of men in the chores and joys of parenting has brought about a number of interesting changes.

In today's families important decisions are made together, and that includes breastfeeding. Few women will breastfeed if their partner is against it and even fewer will do so if they have to relinquish primary care to their partner, for example because he is looking after baby while she is working.

Breastfeeding is more than a way of feeding. The German expression for breastfeeding is "stillen" which translates into "quietening" or "calming." A small baby might be feeling either tired, hungry or uncomfortable, but all these needs are promptly met by breastfeeding, or, in fact, even bottle feeding. Feeding a baby creates a strong bond between baby and the person who normally feeds him. With this in mind, a US company even felt compelled to develop a breast-like device for men to hang around their necks through which a baby can be fed!

It has been shown that in families where the father principally looks after the baby right from day one and bottle feeds, the bond created between father and baby is of equal strength and quality to what we normally associate with the "biological" bond of mother and baby.

Breastfeeding baby means for a father to be asked to take a place behind the mother in baby's affections. It means that a number of needs of the baby cannot be met by the father and this makes a strong impact on how much time he can spend on baby and the quality of this time.

Dads breastfeed, too! Men do not normally complain when this fact goes unacknowledged, as complaining is not encouraged in men and often denounced as "whinging." A lot of fathers also feel - and are actively encouraged by family, friends and other societal forces - that they have to be strong and not burden their partners with their own feelings of insecurity and even rejection. They are expected to provide emotional support, not demand it. In this emotional environment the father-baby relationship can get lost altogether.

Fathers often feel that their place in the family ends with the role of provider, and that they are useless when it comes to handling the baby. In some cases even their function as the main support person for their wives is taken away from them by a relative or the midwife. Many fathers flee this environment: a British study has found that fathers of young children work considerably more on average than men with no children. This is dangerous stuff for a relationship.

The issue of father involvement is not addressed in breastfeeding resources, which are nearly always exclusively made for the mother. At a time when fathers want, and are encouraged by women, to take a greater role in the upbringing of their children their own emotional needs are too often ignored. But addressing these early problems may well prevent a lot of couples from breaking up or from assuming very gender-stereotypical roles that both are unhappy with.

Already dads are attracted to their children like never before. According to census data 31% of mothers with children under one are in paid work, up from 21% in 1986. The most likely person to look after baby while mom is working, ahead of grandmother and even professional childcare institutions, is dad. Families where the father is the primary caregiver are the strongest growing family type - their number has quadrupled since 1986 and overtaken the rise in single father households.

There is now no doubt that the father's early involvement is indeed very important. It has been shown to dramatically accelerate a child's development, dramatically reduce the incidence of abuse by both mother and father and is linked to reduced rates of teenage pregnancy, delinquency, truancy, suicide and better development of self- esteem, among other things.

At the present stage of research it appears that the father's contribution mainly lies in the way he interacts with the child. Fathers seem to be more successful than mothers in stimulating their children into developing physical, social and even language skills. This indicates that, while a caring and nurturing father creates the basis for a strong father-child bond, a child benefits most from him being different to the mother.

But where does this leave a breastfeeding family? How can a bond be established between a main or even primary caregiver and his baby if the most important bond-creating task is carried out by another person?

There are no easy answers to this and much depends on the actual family situation. A key, however, is the father's confidence in his importance to the child and in his parenting skills. It is easy to become trapped in the role of a mere "babysitter", which is what fathers are often perceived as. Fathers have a positive impact on their babies even if it seems that baby is not very attached to him at all! In a breastfeeding family the father needs support, too, in some cases even more than the mother, if he is not to feel to be pushed aside, an add-on to the family.

The mother's encouragement can make all the difference. She must feel confident and happy, for example, to leave her partner alone with baby and should encourage him to have special tasks that only he does. Bathing is a favourite, but it may also be a half- hour walk with baby in the frontpack just after dad has come home from work. But most of all the father must be given the opportunity to do things his own way and it is important not to mock him about the way he handles baby. And if at all possible father and baby should have quality contact every day, as babies cannot yet recognize weekly or even monthly patterns.

On a larger scale breastfeeding information should be more readily available to fathers and address the issue of how breastfeeding impacts on the partnership (beyond changes in the sexual relationship). Problems should clearly be spelled out and not glossed over because of concerns that this may lead families to decide in favour of the bottle. There is a lack of information on how to successfully breastfeed while being in part-time or even full employment - many mothers are wrongly told it cannot be done. Overall it would be desirable to have more support groups which help couples, not just mothers, through this enormous transition that comes along with a child.

There has been a considerable drop in breastfeeding in recent years in New Zealand, and this drop coincides with increased and earlier employment of mothers. If we are to reverse this trend we must target those who look after the baby when mom works. Among those the father is the most cut off from parenting information, simply because he is a man in a system that is made by women for women. This is the challenge for family service providers as they head into the next century.

© 2005 - 2012 Hal Levy and the above captioned author.