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Dad's Eole in Breastfeeding

  • the partner's influence on breastfeeding decisions

  • what helps dads support breastfeeding

  • when breastfeeding gets difficult

Breastfeeding: the Partner’s Role

It can be useful for a father to know that it is a fairly recent development (only over the last 200 years of our human history) that some women don’t breastfeed their babies.


In Europe, wet nursing was a recognised profession until about 1850. At that point, companies began manufacturing substitutes for breast milk. By the 1950s, the marketing of infant formula was in full swing and was recommended by many doctors and became commonly thought to be the modern, technologically advanced way to feed a baby. At that point, only 20% of mothers in the United States breastfed their babies.70


La Leche League spearheaded the long haul back from this commercial approach to feeding infants. Breastfeeding of newborns and babies in New Zealand is again the norm among most demographics. Breastfeeding rates in New Zealand in 2018 were:

  • 86% of babies being breastfed (at least partially) six weeks

  • 78% of babies being breastfed (at least partially) at three months

  • 69% of babies being breastfed (at least partially) at six months71


Breastfeeding Recommendations

The World Health Organization recommends:

  • initiating breastfeeding within one hour of birth

  • exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months

  • introducing safe solid foods at six months together with continued breastfeeding up to two years of age or beyond.72


The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breastfeeding (no solids or juices) for six months and encourages breastfeeding until at least 12 months.73



The Partner’s Influence on Breastfeeding

Before the baby is born, most couples don’t seem to talk about whether the mother will breastfeed the baby. The father seems to pick up clues from what he hears his partner say to her female friends or family, or he sees the preparations she’s making, but few couples discuss it directly. One of the results of not talking about this is that the woman doesn’t actually know what her partner thinks about her breastfeeding.


Some men think that it’s her body and therefore is all about her. Some men ask, “What’s there to talk about? She’s the one doing it.”74

If they haven’t talked about it, women can only make assumptions about their partners’ attitudes towards breastfeeding (as Warren Farrell pointed out, women can’t hear what men don’t say). Interestingly, what mothers think their partners think about breastfeeding is often inaccurate. Most fathers are more supportive of their partners breastfeeding than the mothers think they are.75 Mothers may assume their partners aren’t that keen on them breastfeeding – without knowing that this is probably not true.

Fathers need to know that their attitude towards breastfeeding plays a significant part in their partners’ decisions around it. A father actually telling his partner that he wants her to breastfeed and that he supports her breastfeeding will boost her confidence in breastfeeding.

The opposite is also true. If the father says (or implies) that he thinks breastfeeding is bad for her breasts, will make her breasts ugly or will interfere with sex, the woman is less likely to breastfeed.

A Woman’s Ability to Breastfeed

Whether a mother can breastfeed has nothing to do with breast size and is very seldom related to whether her own mother couldn’t or didn’t. Almost all women can breastfeed. Generally, mothers who don’t breastfeed make a decision not to breastfeed (or to stop) based on one or more of the following:

  • the attitudes of her culture and of her family

  • what she believes her partner thinks about her breastfeeding

  • how breastfeeding fits around her job or other activities

  • her physical difficulties with breastfeeding.


What Helps Fathers to Support Breastfeeding

Things that fathers need to know about breastfeeding and breast milk that may influence him to support his partner to breastfeed:

  • breast milk has antibodies that promote health and lessen the risk of the baby getting gastro-enteritis; respiratory, urinary infections, ear infections; eczema and childhood diabetes76 (infant formula does not have protective antibodies)

  • the mother eating well and breastfeeding the baby is cheaper than buying formula

  • breast milk is more convenient than buying, storing, mixing, heating and loading formula into bottles and washing up afterwards

  • women who breastfeed have a reduced risk of early onset breast cancer, ovarian cancer and osteoporosis

  • it is pregnancy itself that causes breasts to sag or change shape, not breastfeeding

  • breastfeeding helps a woman get closer to her pre-pregnancy shape back by burning calories.

  • That the father isn’t a source of breast milk but is still capable of soothing a fussy baby may teach the child that all problems are not solved by food.


When Breastfeeding Gets Difficult

Fathers need to know that babies often become unsettled with feeding at around 3-8 weeks of age and mothers may experience problems with breastfeeding then or become convinced that the baby isn’t getting enough milk. As her partner, may feel he is being supportive by encouraging her to go to a feeding formula to solve these issues. But he better supports her by being aware that breastfeeding can become very painful and difficult, particularly at that time, and assisting her and gently encouraging her to carry on breastfeeding. There are people who can help with breastfeeding difficulties: Plunket, La Leche League, lactation consultants, and the family doctor.


If She Can’t Breastfeed

While most women are capable of breastfeeding, some can't or there can be insurmountable obstacles and some women stop (or don’t start) for good reason. Talking this through and making the decisions around this as a couple is important. Not breastfeeding is not the end of the world, nor does it mean the baby will not be healthy and happy. If a women can’t breastfeed (or stops soon) does not make her a bad mother. In the end, the most important thing is that the couple is well informed making good decisions and is doing what is in their means for the well-being of their baby.

Health Issues


Smoking and pregnancy don’t go together. Even if the pregnant woman doesn’t smoke but her partner is a heavy smoker, the child is at increased risk of low birth weight. This means a weak newborn who is more likely to develop respiratory disease.77 Even passive smoke contributes to the incidence of ear infections, asthma, bronchitis and pneumonia in the baby. If both parents smoke, the baby is eight times more likely to die of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) also known as cot death.

If either the mother or the father is a heavy smoker, the baby is more likely to cry excessively. It’s more difficult for parents to like  and bond with a baby who cries much of the time. And a continually crying baby puts stress on the couple relationship.

Fathers need to know that a pregnant mother who has a smoking habit is more likely to continue to smoke if he continues to smoke during the pregnancy. If he quits smoking, the pregnant woman is more likely to quit herself.78

Fathers should also know that SIDS is more likely to occur in households where someone smokes and where the parents have been drinking alcohol or taking other recreational drugs.

Perinatal Depression (PND)

PND among mothers is common and treatable. At least 10% of women (some estimates are as high as 25%) get depression.79 It typically occurs within a few months of the birth. PND should not to be confused with the “baby blues” which commonly occurs a week so after the birth. The baby blues is about coming off of the hormonal and emotional high and is more like a pronounced mood swing. The baby blues tends to last just a few days.

Post natal depression symptoms (lasting more than two weeks) may be:

frequent episodes of crying or weepiness

persistent sadness


feelings of inadequacy or guilt

sleep and/or appetite disturbances

irritability/mood changes

overly intense worries about the baby

difficulty concentrating, making decisions or remembering things

lack of interest in the baby, family or activities

bizarre thoughts and fears, such as obsessive thoughts of harming the infant

feeling overwhelmed

headaches, chest pains, heart palpitations, numbness and hyperventilation.

A baby needs engaged, face-to-face responsive interaction, and it needs this often. Being talked to, played with and having eye contact with people is what stimulates an infant’s brain to throw out those synapses that connect up the neurons in their brain. A depressed mother will find it difficult to give her baby all the direct attention they needs and their neurodevelopment may not carry on at a healthy rate. To compensate, the father (or someone) will need to be there much of the time to take that role. An infant who doesn’t get that face to face stimulation is likely to have poor developmental outcomes. Getting help for a mother who is depressed is important and needs to happen soon after symptoms arise.

A mother may not recognise PND herself or, if she recognises it, she may deny it or not want to discuss it. She may feel ashamed because she doesn’t enjoy her baby or she may feel she is a bad mother.

A depressed mother is more likely to turn to her partner for help than to any other individual, including medical professionals. Her partner will often be in the best position to notice her state of mind and recognise her depression. A father needs to know it is probably going to be up to him to start the ball rolling by encouraging her to seek help for depression. She will recover more quickly if she has good emotional support from her partner and if her partner is actively engaged with her treatment.80

How the father can help if his partner has PND:

let her talk

reassure her

take the pressure of housework and the baby off her

help her access professional help such as the midwife, Plunket, Maternal Mental Health, Piki Te Ora, or private counselling services

get support himself because living with a depressed partner is tough on him and their baby.

Talk therapy is usually enough to treat PND. Most women who have good support get through it without drug therapy. If it persists, her GP or other professional may consider prescribing antidepressants.

PND can be caused or exacerbated by the baby’s father if the mother has a poor relationship with him or if she experiences him as being emotionally unavailable. A new mother needs moral and practical support with the baby and depression may follow if her partner spends a lot of time away (even if it’s because he’s at work to provide for the family) or is emotionally distant. A mother is also more likely to become depressed if her partner holds rigid, patriarchal gender-role expectations or if he is critical, coercive, verbally abusive or violent.81

Perinatal Depression in Fathers

Fathers need to know that three to ten percent of new fathers get depression themselves – this is about twice the average for all men in the age group. Fathers can develop depression from before the birth to several months after the birth. Symptoms for men may be similar to those for women but he may also be quicker to anger or act more aggressive. He may disappear into his work or he may step-up his drinking or other drug taking in an attempt to feel better.

Factors that often occur alongside depression in fathers include: his partner is depressed; unresolved difficulties in the couple relationship; not wanting to have a baby at that time; or feeling isolated and not having enough personal support.

What a depressed father needs to know:

he needs to talk to someone who will listen well

he shouldn’t expect too much of himself

he should get himself to his WellChild nurse, midwife, GP or other health professional who can get him the help he needs

A depressed father is less likely to read or sing to their baby and their children commonly have a smaller vocabulary at the age of two years.82 So there are significant advantages for the both the baby and the depressed father for him to get help.

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