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Basic Dad: How Can I Best Be Supportive About Breastfeeding?

Advice from a lactation counselor, a couples therapist and mother and father of three

When you’re a dad, parenting questions often come up that you struggle to find an answer to. Since other parents are the worst and Google will send you down a rabbit hole of paralyzing, paranoid terror, we’re here to help by putting those questions to the experts. This is “Basic Dad,” an advice column for dads who feel stupid about asking for basic advice.

The Very Basic Concern

It’s been six months since my wife gave birth, and I still haven’t figured out a good way to talk to her about breastfeeding. Not that I don’t know what’s going on — there were enough classes and lactation consultants involved to make me feel like an expert on the benefits and basic mechanics of it — but rather, in terms of how I can help fit into it. I feel like she’s doing the bulk of the work, and I want to know what I can do that’s useful. I’ve asked her, but she’s understandably got enough new stuff to worry about without figuring out my shit too.

More complicated is the fact that my wife has found the whole process hard, and is considering putting an end to the breastfeeding altogether. Now, we’ve had it drummed into us that “breast is best,” and I feel like it’s my kid and I should have some kind of say. But then, it’s her body (and God knows, I doubt I would’ve lasted as long at this as she has). So what do I do to find a line between doing what’s best for my kid, and respecting my wife’s decision?

(Also, it’s not the top priority here, but I feel like, sexually speaking, there’s a whole boundaries thing I haven’t quite figured out yet around my wife and her breasts, so there’s also that…)

Basically: How do I be more supportive when it comes to breastfeeding?

The Expert Advice

Laura Vladimirova, lactation counselor: I’d recommend to a new dad to learn about the norms of feeding in advance, including baby’s cues, how frequently babies need to eat, how many diapers a newborn will make and so forth. Anticipating these norms, which may seem confusing at first, helps the feeding parent with informed support and camaraderie.

Supporting the feeding parent feeding in public is huge, too. Sitting and talking to the feeding parent or ensuring they have what they need nearby during feeding, like food, water and reading material, is wonderful. Also, looking at the feeding parent’s body: Do they look comfortable? Would a pillow help? How about something under their feet, like a little stool? Making the environment for feeding more convenient can be really great.

Being compassionate is also at the top of this list, like listening to the feeding parent, affirming their feelings and being patient, loving and kind during this new time in your lives goes a long way.

It’s also important for both parents to be able to feel like they can be honest and vulnerable with each other. The non-feeding parent should absolutely voice feelings, questions and concerns, but it should be done with forethought, by considering time of day, energy levels, etc. Ideally, a dialogue about feeding the baby should be considered from the angles of science, current recommendations and what’s best for the baby and family. However, if the parents cannot come to an agreement, any final decision that directly affects the feeding person’s body should be made by the feeding person.

Jodi Rabinowitz, couples counselor and sex therapist: When a couple brings a new baby into the world, their relationship can change in ways they didn’t expect. A couple may expect sleepless nights, anxiety about their new baby’s health and disagreements about child-rearing, but they may not expect conflict around breastfeeding.

If the father thinks breastfeeding should continue longer than the mother thinks it should, I’d suggest the father take some time to explore his intentions for wanting his wife to continue. This way he can clearly express his feelings to her. I’d also suggest taking time to understand why his wife wants to stop. It’s my opinion that since it’s her body, she has the ultimate decision. But like any decision in a partnership, communicating each other’s feelings, concerns, desires and needs are important. Perhaps, by being thoughtful about your intentions and your approach, you may even find a compromise that fits both partners’ needs.

As far as intimacy goes, a woman’s breasts are her own, but before the baby, they’re often a part of her sexual relationship with her partner. But now a new mother’s breasts may be exclusively used as a means to feed her baby. This can interfere with her romantic relationship in a number of ways: Often, breasts can be sore while breastfeeding and some women don’t want to be touched; her nipples may also leak, which can be embarrassing; many women feel so involved by their new role as mother, they don’t feel that their breasts are a sexual part of their body anymore. On the other hand, some women simply want a break from having their breasts touched. This sudden change can be confusing and upsetting for a father.

A father can be supportive by understanding these issues and listening to the mother’s needs around the autonomy of her body and her growing relationship with their baby. It’s also an act of support for the father to communicate his needs. When the father notes his emotional, relational and sexual needs, it helps the mother clearly understand how she can support him. If needs aren’t communicated, a father can easily take his partner’s behavior as disinterest, and a mother may take his behavior as selfishness. Resentment is often the result.

So, in addition to having open, respectful and kind communication, there are some other things you can do to help your relationship during this time. If babysitters are available, start making date nights a priority. Fathers can also bond with their babies by bottle feeding pumped milk or by sitting with the mother as she breastfeeds.

It takes time for new parents to learn about their new roles and to integrate them into their lives and relationships. A new baby definitely changes the dynamic, but as long as the parents are communicating and taking both of their needs into consideration, the new addition doesn’t need to lead to resentment.

Josh, father of three: My wife does unscheduled, feed-on-demand breastfeeding and has done this pretty much continuously for the past six years, only taking breaks when she got pregnant with our next kid. On one hand, this has been advantageous as a man, because I don’t have to wake up ever in the middle of the night for feedings. The trade-off is that I wake up every morning, get the kids ready for school, make breakfast and take care of lunches and anything else.

In addition to having that arrangement worked out, I try to support her by always trying to make my wife feel beautiful. No matter how miserable she feels, I tell her that she makes it look easy and makes it look sexy, because it’s important to make your wife feel loved and adored.

Miranda, mother of three (and Josh’s wife): Honestly, I don’t think the father should have a say in breastfeeding at all. It’s a woman’s body, and they should be expected to support their breastfeeding wife by bringing lots of tea, coffee or food or whatever the mother needs.

When it comes to how long a mother should breastfeed, I think if anything, you’d have to discuss the issue before the kid comes along so that the expectation is set, but if you haven’t, my honest advice is to have the mother make those decisions, because there’s no winning that fight.