One of the reasons frequently cited by women for considering giving up breastfeeding is, “It means my partner can share the feeds.” Sometimes, this is a mutual decision but, often, the pressure comes from the baby’s father…
It’s understandable, given the portrayal of babies in films and on television. Rarely are women seen breastfeeding unless it’s to do with an storyline about an ‘unstable’ mother – think Stacey Slater during her postpartum psychosis in Eastenders… breastfeeding and babywearing so no one else could touch her baby. As soon as she was better, neither were shown or mentioned again. Think Ellen in The Replacement, breastfeeding and pumping but in a way that was a) totally unrealistic and b) added to the sense of her gradual emotional unravelling. Partners also return to work, usually after a couple of weeks, to the inevitable questions, “Is she sleeping well?” and “Is she a good baby?”. Answer truthfully – “she is sleeping like a newborn and feeding very, very regularly”, and the likelihood of a response about ‘sticking her on the bottle’ is likely to be forthcoming, rather than an understanding, “It does get easier; that’s totally normal newborn behaviour.”
Is it any wonder that blokes end up feeling a bit sidelined? It seems crazy that a tiny newborn could make a grown man feel usurped but, with sleep deprivation and the adjustment to life with a baby taking their toll, the sense of helplessness that comes with not being able to share the feeds can be tough.
So, what can you do to *really* support this new mama and baby on their journey?
Realise that it isn’t about you. You’re not in competition with your baby. He/she is totally reliant on your partner for nourishment and, for the most part, comfort and security. Babies don’t realise they’re not part of their mother until somewhere around six months. So, if you’re holding/cuddling/doing skin to skin/bathing/out for a walk with baby and they are clearly in need of a feed, make sure mama is comfortable and hand them over. Accept that you can’t be the one to feed (and please don’t put pressure on her to express milk so you can do so; if it isn’t a necessity then expressing to bottle feed must be HER choice) but you can be the one to sit and chat whilst they’re feeding, so they can hear your voice and know that you’re there for them too.
Read up on breastfeeding. Hopefully, you’ve attended some form of antenatal class on breastfeeding? Take notes – be the rational, level head in those early days when she’s learning this bloody hard new skill in a haze of hormones, healing and exhaustion. Know that the amount the baby feeds is directly proportionate to the amount of milk her body will produce. Know that cluster feeding (when a baby seems to be constantly feeding) is totally normal and healthy (though exhausting). Know that her milk it is specifically tailored to your baby’s needs, to the weather and the time of year, to the surrounding environment. Know that breastfed babies feed more regularly because breast milk is quickly and easily digested (as nature intended) not because they are trying to annoy you. Know that nighttime milk is hormone-rich and contains tryptophan, which aids good sleep, thus helping babies develop their circadian rhythm. Know that it releases endorphins for mother and baby. Clever, huh? Start here, then move on to this article and go from there.
Has she sent you an article to read? Read it. Has she liked or shared an article on Facebook? Read it. Spotted a relevant article yourself? Share it with her. You’re in this together – you may not actually be feeding the baby but you can still be involved.
Jo says: “I remember reading up on why so many black women don’t breastfeed. I was so interested in the historical and cultural reasons behind it and felt compelled to know more. I mentioned it to Phil in conversation weeks later and he casually reeled off a load of facts about it. I’d obviously reacted to something on Facebook and was touched that he’d taken the time to read up on it too.”
Lauren says: “My husband didn’t come to the breastfeeding antenatal class I attended, because I didn’t think it necessary to ask him to. When I needed a bit of specialist help in the first few days of feeding, a breastfeeding counsellor came over to see us and my husband listened to every word she said and watched what she did. I has since said he found this immensely helpful in both his understanding of what breastfeeding is and the process (and a good latch!), and meant he could provide steady and rational support to me when I needed it most.”
Don’t let your research stop there. It’s also helpful to understand infant sleep too. Our society has a weird and biologically unnatural obsession with making babies sleep for huge lengths of time before they’re actually ready. Anything by Sarah Ockwell-Smith comes highly recommended by us – her Gentle Sleep Book (currently £2.99 from The Book People!) is full of brilliant information on the history of sleep, newborn (and beyond) sleep patterns, creating a healthy sleep environment and sleep associations that can be used (in time) as baby becomes less and less dependent on mum – all things that you can be a part of. It also contains advice on safe bed-sharing, which may be a consideration for you as a family. Read our guest post on this topic here.
Reassure her. Tell her she’s doing a brilliant job. Not only has she incubated this tiny being, she’s now sustaining its life on the other side of her womb. Breastfeeding is a skill that she, and baby, need to take time to learn. In the beginning, for many women, it’s REALLY BLOODY HARD! Amongst our tribe, in the first month, there were cracked nips, bad latches, nipple pain, and general lamentations about how hard it is and WHY DOES NOONE TELL YOU HOW HARD IT IS?!?! But, because of supportive hubbies and groups like La Leche League, one of us fed for nine months, two for a year, Jo fed for 17 months and Lauren and one other tribe member are still nursing at 19/20 months and have no plans to stop any time soon. It DOES get better but you play a big role in helping her through those early weeks.
Know that it can take up to a week for her milk to come in but that baby is getting what it needs from her colostrum Reassure her that babies have teeny tiny tummies so no need for vast quantities of milk. If latching is an issue, help her by watching YouTube videos about different positions for feeding and latching (Lauren’s husband used to stroke her arm and talk to her to calm her if she was getting stressed with latching etc). If that doesn’t help, research your local LLL group and go along with her, or call them for her. With all these messages about breastfeeding being ‘easy and natural’ flying about, be that person who says that, actually, it’s OK if you take a while to reach that stage. Most importantly, if you know that she wants to breastfeed, don’t suggest using formula – it will make her feel like a failure when she’s already feeling vulnerable.
Lauren says: “Because of the nighttime cluster feeding in the first couple of weeks, for much of the night I was trying so hard to stay awake while feeding my newborn (I’ve since learnt about bedsharing which can enable mama to get some sleep, too!). I found this time really challenging and every day at about 4/5pm I found myself crying and worrying about the night ahead. My husband just listened to me patiently, wiped away the tears and hugged me. I shall never forget him being so present and supportive – it made such a difference.”
Don’t make ridiculous comments. We’ve heard all sorts, thankfully not from our own husbands. Comments such as, “Your boobs are mine, I don’t want to share them” are not only misogynistic but utterly ridiculous – her boobs have a biological function and that is to produce milk and feed her baby. Sexual pleasure is a secondary function, yes, and the media had objectified them to the extent that their true purpose has been forgotten, but don’t be a part of that viewpoint. Comments about ‘covering up’ if she doesn’t want to; don’t makes jokes about her being a hippy; don’t question why the baby is feeding almost constantly at times – it’s normal (if you’ve done your research, as above, you’ll already know this, of course).
Protect her breastfeeding space just as you would her birthing space. Avoid inviting guests around unless she’s absolutely sure she’s ready. For the first few weeks, it’s likely that she feels like starting every feed leaves her fumbling and exposed – getting into position, latching correctly, unhooking nursing bras, removing a breast pad… it’s all hard enough without having an audience.
That said, when you do have guests, or if you’re out in public, be there to help and make her feel secure – you wouldn’t have walked out of the room when she was giving birth and she may feel just as vulnerable now. For God’s sake don’t suggest that she ‘covers up’ – she has no need to; she’s simply feeding your child. However, if she wants to use a cover or scarf, be the one to hold it in place for her whilst she gets baby to latch and gets comfortable (both of us can’t stress enough how helpful this can be, rather than someone just watching you struggle – you’re in it together and this support demonstrates that!).
If you’ve done your research, you’ll also be able to help her bat off crap, unsolicited advice from family, friends and the general public – sadly, something that is no one else’s business suddenly becomes a hot topic when there’s a baby at the breast in the same airspace. Our top three unhelpful (and misinformed) comments are:
- “Wow, he’s feeding a lot! Maybe formula would be better – it will fill him up for longer.”
- “I have nothing against feeding in public but you really should cover up or go somewhere private.”
- “God, how will you cope without anyone else being able to feed him?”
*FACEPALM* Some people don’t deserve a response but, if you can give one that is reasoned and researched, they usually tend to shut up. Other unhelpful comments and responses available here.
Of course, your partner may have no issue whatsoever with the above, especially if it’s her second, third, fourth baby BUT just be mindful of it.
Think about her needs. We’re talking basic stuff here. Glasses of water, cups of tea, regular snacks. Going to work? Make sure she has the remote control, her phone and charger and anything else she might need close by – in those early days, mastering breastfeeding is hard enough without having to move during a feed.
Lauren said her husband simply taking the time to sit with her on the sofa while she fed or, if she needed to feed out of the room somewhere busy (due to baby being distracted between 3 and 5 months), popping in to check she was OK / keep her company was really nice. She adds, “He also went out on ’emergency’ shopping trips to get me nipple creams, healing breast pads etc when I couldn’t get out in those first few days and sorely needed something soothing for my newly feeding boobs!”.
Is she expressing? Wash the pump parts! Jo remembers Phil doing this for the first time (and many times thereafter) and being absolutely blown away: “It was such a small gesture really, but I was so grateful not to have to do it myself. Pumping was a royal pain in the ass – I didn’t enjoy it at all – but it was necessary for a few months. Not having the added chore of washing the pump parts (and the bottles we used) was amazing.” (Remember: no need to sterilise if only using breastmilk – hot soapy water is enough)
Encourage her to self-care. This goes for all new mums but, as breastfeeding mamas can be feeding constantly in the early weeks, she will need to be encouraged to take snippets of time for herself. Wednesday’s post will focus on bonding for babies and dads and this is your time to do that – run her a bath, put baby in a sling or wrap and let her soak for a bit – chocolate/wine/tea/other drink or snack of her choice optional but usually very welcome. Send her for a nap – even 20 minutes will make her feel renewed. Buy her a new book or magazine if that’s her thing. There are plenty of ideas here. In short, use your knowledge of her to think about what would make her feel better, and do it.
If there are instances where you need to feed by bottle, read up on how to bottle feed a breastfed baby, including ‘paced feeding’. It is SO important, when bottle-feeding a breastfed baby, to be aware of, clued up on and do paced feeding. Milk from the breast doesn’t all come at once, supply is stimulated by the baby and it peaks and troughs. A bottle, on the other hand, has all the milk there is one go. It is incredibly important to mimic the breastfeeding pattern (in allowing the baby to take small amounts at a time and with pauses) to ensure the baby does not overfeed and to ensure the breastfeeding relationship continues when mum is able to feed again. This is a really useful “how to” guide.
Don’t have a timescale in mind. Chances are, once breastfeeding is established and becomes easier, she may well end up continuing indefinitely. Jo never imagined she’d be feeding until four months into her second pregnancy and Lauren didn’t think she’d still be nursing a 19-month old. Adjust your expectations and let her do her thing, without judgement – she gets enough of that from people who don’t know better: “Oh my goodness, you’re feeding a toddler?! When will you STOP?!”
This is a team effort. Breastfeeding mamas and their babies create what is known as a dyad (one being, consisting of two elements). However, think of yourself as being the third part of this grouping – your support is utterly invaluable. She is giving the baby comfort and responding to its needs; you can do the same for her.
Some brilliant FB groups to have a quick scroll through, for instant support and guidance:
La Leche League USA
Breastfeeding Uncovered (Dr Amy Brown)
Grubby Mummy and her Grubby Babies
The Milk Meg
The Leaky Boob
Check back on Wednesday night for part two of this post, on bonding, with lots of anecdotal advice from other mamas.
Love, The Mother Side xx
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