A partner's role in breastfeeding
2/9/2023 by Noelle Torrance, M.D.
They make it look so effortless, the breastfeeding moms we see, as if it comes so naturally. While the source may be natural, breastfeeding is a learned skill, especially for new mothers and their babies. Currently, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of a child's life and continuing for as long as is mutually desired for the mother and baby. For breastfeeding to be successful and continue for the recommended duration, women need adequate support.
A father's/partner's support is one of the most important factors for a mother's breastfeeding success. This impact starts even before the baby is born, and a partner can influence whether a mother chooses to breastfeed. In one study, when fathers were given a two-hour presentation on how to support breastfeeding, the mother was 1.8 times more likely to try breastfeeding. Partners also have a strong influence on how long their baby is breastfed. In a review of eight studies that took place around the globe, research shows that breastfeeding education and promotion for fathers, both before and after birth, improved breastfeeding rates at 6 months and lessened the occurrence of breastfeeding-related problems.
While a father/partner may not physically be able to breastfeed their baby, there are many ways in which they can support mothers by boosting their confidence and helping to overcome obstacles.
Learn breastfeeding basics before baby arrives
One of the best things a partner can do is learn about the benefits of breastfeeding and how to breastfeed. To do this, there are face-to-face or online breastfeeding classes available through the community, your local hospital or WIC (nutrition program for women, infants and children). There are also books about breastfeeding. By learning about breastfeeding ahead of time, a partner can help the mother remember breastfeeding information, such as strategies for positioning, latching and managing breastfeeding challenges.
Be involved in conversations about breastfeeding in the hospital and at your infant's appointments after discharge
Discuss your breastfeeding plans and goals prior to your baby's due date so that you are on the same page about what successful breastfeeding will look like. Get to know the hospital's breastfeeding practices to ensure that they align with your goals. At the time of delivery, advocate for skin-to-skin time soon after birth, if this is safe for mother and baby per their health care team. If the mother is having trouble with breastfeeding, ask the hospital staff or your clinician for help. There are lactation specialists available that can assist with any challenges that may come up.
Offer a helping hand
Once mom has gotten comfortable, bring the baby over to her when it is time to nurse. You also can help to position the baby or breast to establish a good latch. Bring glasses of water, heating pads, fresh nursing pads, lanolin cream or anything else the mother may need while nursing. Many babies fall asleep at the breast, especially prior to switching to the second breast. Partners can change baby's diaper prior to switching to the other breast to help stimulate and wake the baby so they are ready to finish nursing. It can be difficult for anyone to wake up in the middle of the night, so it also may be helpful for you to help wake up the mother in the middle of the night when the baby is cueing to eat. Some mothers also will choose to pump, and, in this case, it can be helpful to assist with cleaning breast pump parts and bottles. After baby is done feeding, help by putting the baby back to sleep.
Be mom's and baby's caretaker
Mothers often find it difficult to complete simple tasks, such as showering, fixing a meal or using the restroom. When mom needs alone time, take time to comfort, snuggle, bond and even do skin-to-skin with baby. Ensure that nutritious foods are available that take minimal preparation and ensure mom is eating enough.
Parenting can be a thankless job. And especially during the period after delivering a baby, many mothers need a little extra encouragement. Provide moral support and let her know you think she's doing a great job. Be an advocate for mother and support her as she feeds your baby in public, and proudly keep her company.
Breastfeeding is a family affair and requires teamwork. Together, you can optimize your chances for a successful and rewarding breastfeeding experience.
Noelle Torrance, M.D., is a resident in Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine at Mayo Clinic. Dr. Torrance developed an interest in breastfeeding education when she spent a month with lactation specialists during medical school.