Fathers influence mothers’ breastfeeding decisions and experiences! Fathers’ perceptions of their roles as members of the breastfeeding family are probably important components of that influence. Previous studies asking men directly about their breastfeeding-related roles have predominantly focused on the “dark side” of the father’s experience – particularly their limited ability to nurture and bond with their babies. Our study more fully explored fathers’ experiences by interviewing twenty-one involved fathers of breastfeeding babies about fathering a breastfed baby and about their role in the breastfeeding family.
Fathers identified their unique roles as team members ensuring that their babies received the benefits of breastfeeding. When asked “What is it like to be the father of a breastfeeding baby?” fathers generally focused on the pleasure of knowing that their baby was obtaining the benefits of breastfeeding and their role in supporting the breastfeeding mother. They frequently used the term “we”, suggesting their roles as integral members of the breastfeeding team and characterized themselves as the supporting cast member to the mother’s starring role. One father summed up his role as “…a support person…almost like a checking line as opposed to scoring line. She’s doing the big good stuff and I’m just supporting her to get that done.”
A primary fathering role was supporting breastfeeding by learning about breastfeeding both with the mother and independently. Some fathers became the mother’s memory when she could not take in all the advice she was being given and others used their knowledge of breastfeeding resources to encourage mothers seek out professional breastfeeding support when needed. As well, many fathers supported breastfeeding by sharing housework and childcare and some provided assistance “in the breastfeeding moment” by facilitating mothers’ comfort during breastfeeding or assisting with the use of breastfeeding equipment. Perhaps most importantly, fathers supported the breastfeeding mother by valuing her and by trusting, respecting, and supporting her personal choices.
Fathers insisted that being the father of a breastfeeding baby was not unique in general, but they often identified their own special ways of nurturing and fostering positive father-infant relationships as they “waited their turn” to bond with their babies through feeding. Some fathers chose to be involved while the mother was breastfeeding so that they could bond while the infant “is still in the feeding zone.” Others developed rituals for spending time with baby or found their own masculine way of nurturing, such as holding their infant with their strong arms and talking to the infant in their deeper voice. These supportive and nurturing behaviors were not seen as compensating for the “dark side” of breastfeeding, but as important contributions in their own right.
Many fathers want to be involved in the lives of their breastfeeding children. Health care providers should be encouraged to acknowledge fathers as members of the breastfeeding team and engage fathers in learning about breastfeeding and the many possible forms of breastfeeding support. Each father should be encouraged to communicate with his partner about her goals and desires for breastfeeding and regularly negotiate the type and amount of involvement both parents want the father to have. We suggest that fathers should be presented with the range of possible supportive behaviors and empowered to explore and determine their own unique roles as an integral part of the feeding process in which, although they may be the “supporting actor” and the mother the “star”, both roles are essential and worthy of acclaim.
Lynn Rempel, RN, PhD
Associate Professor, Chair,
Department of Nursing