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Why Men ‘Comfort Nursing’ Their Children Always Seems to Freak Us Out

We want fathers to lean all-in on the parenting front, but clearly for some people there’s a bridge too far. Or in this case, a nipple. A video from Twitter user Daddy Duke that now has more than 4 million views showed his infant daughter happily suckling on his nipple, her eyes going drowsy with comfort.

His caption is “baby girl was OBVIOUSLY confused,” but it’s clear from his own reaction that he’s just as confused himself. When he notices what she’s doing, he laughs, startling his daughter enough for her to pull off. “Oops! I’m sorry,” he says gently, and let’s her get back to business. The laugh and expression on his face shows equal parts surprise and delight.

The tweet went viral, and many reactions are awe and delight:

But some are also hostile, suggesting that some people aren’t sure if this is A Thing You Can (Or Should) Do As A Man or some disturbing form of child abuse:

To be clear, it is a thing you can do as a man. It’s called comfort nursing or dry nursing, and moms do it sometimes once the milk has dried up (and even grandmothers, in one controversial example). “Comfort nursing is basically just nursing for soothing versus hunger,” pediatrician Gina Posner told Yahoo!. She added that “it’s fine” for babies to do this on dads sometimes, and that it’s basically another form of a pacifier.

After all, babies already comfort nurse on other stuff too — an arm, a pinky finger, the aforementioned pacifier — when mom’s not around to feed, or in between feedings when they just want something to suckle, she explained. So long as it’s not in those first couple weeks of nursing — when it’s important for the baby to establish feeding routine on a mother’s nipple or bottle — it shouldn’t create any nipple confusion.

Breastfeeding specialists have been okaying the practice for years, too, Huffington Post notes, citing an expert from 2005 who said dad’s nipple is a “good fleshy substitute” to soothe an upset baby.

It’s also common in the African Aka Pygmy tribe, which numbers around 20,000. When the women go out to do the hunting, the men step in and take care of the kids and also dry nurse them. When anthropologist Barry Hewlett noticed that these fathers were totally cool with touching, cuddling, holding and feeding their kids, and also within arm’s reach of their children an unheard-of 47 percent of the time, he declared them the best dads in the world.

But are Western parents eager to challenge that title? Not always, and that includes dads and moms, in spite of what baby might like. A thread on Baby Center asks women if they’d be okay if their husbands comfort nursed. “I think that’s weird,” one woman said. “It would probably crack me up,” a second wrote. Another said her husband’s “nips are too hairy.” A fourth commenter offered, “That just creeps me out.”

Dads on Reddit debated the practice a few years ago because one dad wanted to know “how weird” he was for trying to get his baby to latch on when she’s crying at the night. He attributed the move to desperation. Though one dad said there was no judgment, most commenters said they’d never do it in a million years. The original poster makes clear it’s not like he’s trying to actually feed the kid. “BTW, I don’t think I want to lactate,” he writes. “That’s just too weird for me.”

For the record, men can lactate, as Slate explains in a piece where writer Michael Thomsen set out to test whether he can breastfeed. After all, like women, men have the same clusters of alveoli in the breast tissue to make milk when prolactin is released by the pituitary. That happens to women when they’re pregnant, and at a much higher rate than men. Women start out with a third more prolactin, and pregnancy generates 10 times that. You could take drugs or supplements to boost your supply, or go old-school and stimulate milk production with nipple suckling. Per Thomsen (emphasis his):

When a baby (or a non-baby) sucks on a nipple, the movement activates mechanoreceptors that connect to the brain and stimulate the pituitary gland. Adoptive mothers can use a breast pump to access this nipple-based lactation process: A standard pumping schedule can take up to two months and ideally involves pumping each breast every three hours around the clock. Here’s the rub: Men have the same receptors in their nipples as women, so the pumping method should work just as well for us.

Yet it doesn’t always work for men (or women, for that matter), though some succeed in producing milk. Earlier this year, a 30-year-old trans woman made news because she was able to medically induce lactation and breastfeed her child exclusively for six weeks.

Dry nursing on occasion, however, isn’t going to lead to lactation. And what’s more, you don’t need to produce so much as a drop of milk for father and child to benefit from it anyway. For the baby, it’s calming. For fathers, it’s a bonding experience. New research suggests that skin-to-skin contact, long understood to be critical to mother-baby bonding, lactation and stabilizing temperature and heart rate for the baby, is just as critical after birth for fathers.

Whereas women have the benefit of hormones that trigger so-called maternal instincts, it’s skin-to-skin contact with the baby that triggers paternal ones in dad, which experts say rewire their brains. In short, it turns on dopamine, which releases oxytocin, which makes a father get that feelgood rush that hooks him on caring for his infant, even when it’s a screaming blob.

That doesn’t mean dads need to comfort nurse unless they want to. But it’s still worth understanding why it makes people so squeamish. We’ve been slow to accept men in typically feminine roles at home, and that’s surfaced in everything from changing diapers to pushing strollers to accepting an increasing number of stay-at-home dads.

But whereas those men are largely given A’s for effort for those tasks, comfort nursing is unique. It’s one thing for dad to be capable of doing some or all of the stuff mom can, we seem to be saying. It’s another to literally become her, using his actual body as a stand-in for hers. Thus the confusion for men who are encouraged to fully participate in parenting, but learn they still must do so within ever-shifting parameters of masculinity.

Any men who can’t fathom ever dry nursing should be relieved to know they still have options. One dad recreated the nursing experience for his child by sticking a bottle in his shirt and cutting a hole for the nipple. If that doesn’t work, though, get back to basics: Pop a finger into baby’s mouth and let them go to town.

Just make sure it’s a clean finger and not a dirty one. Now that would be disturbing.