"I want dad to be able to get involved in the feeding so he can bond",
"We're going to mix feed so dad can help with night feeds",
Most people probably don't see anything wrong with these statements, it all sounds perfectly reasonable; indeed I remember uttering similar with my first, it's just what "non extremists" do right? I confess I started out a very "mainstream" mum (by the apparently essential labeling system parenting seems to demand) but the more I trained, read and experienced, the more I began looking for evidence rather than opinion - and the more I wondered about dads, bottles and bonding.
Dads feeding became something marketed by the artificial breastmilk substitute companies; "feed the baby to bond and help out your partner, be the good dad" was born! It fits great with the hands on dad thing and women proudly announce their husband or partner of course wants to get involved with feeding - like a badge of good parenting. Some of you might remember the advert recently for a follow on milk, it showed a dad pacing with baby at night and the voice over "I promise to do my share of the night feeds"?
The concept is actually a rather nifty idea on a couple of levels. Firstly whether mum breastfeeds is heavily linked with the support (or lack of) received from her partner, secondly mums also buy into dads sharing night feeds because as mentioned above, it makes seemingly logical sense in today's society to share all care.
When mum experiences problems, partners of course want to help resolve things. In fact I often say dads are "solvers".
Often they have no idea how to help with breastfeeding though and in absence of other ideas, infant formula may be suggested to “give mum a break” – the problem can be solved with a bottle! double whammy. Many understandably don't know how much this can impact in the early weeks - perhaps by reducing how effectively baby milks the breast resulting in soreness for mum, or how the fast easy flow of the bottle can cause baby to be impatient and fuss at the breast (particularly if supply is low and so milk flow slower) . Many don't realise that ”help” in the form of a bottle can compound whatever problem mum was having initially, reduce supply - increasing the need for further supplementation and longer term actually cause far more problems than it appeared to solve. Even if they did, many are not aware of the risks of not breastfeeding to baby or mum, or the impact of a bottle of artificial milk. This can put a lot of pressure on a mum who feels torn by what she has previously been told, but also has a shared sense of lack of other options or coping strategies - how many get good breastfeeding education prior to having a baby?
In practice many mums struggle to express much in the early days, and if they do they may end up so full if a feed is missed they have to express anyway at the same time dad is giving the bottle. If it's before supply has settled, expressing can kick start an oversupply for mum - handy if it's planned for a return to work (as some mums do) not so much so for the new mum wondering why she has enough milk to feed half the street. Some mums hate expressing, some babies hate bottles and sharing the feeding can end up a lot more work than mum just feeding baby.
But who decided men feeding babies was bonding or that this was the best role for dads/partners to assume?
Before you start yelling at the screen, hear me out. The hormone oxytocin plays a hefty part in the bonding process; it has been shown to influence trust and social attachment between mammals, plus feeling good, relaxed, connected and less stressed or anxious. Breastfeeding produces high levels of oxytocin, but it’s not a hormone exclusive to breastfeeding – other things also produce it at different levels. A 2009 study of 80 couples showed:
The more the men in the study cuddled their babies, the more their oxytocin levels rose. It’s like a feedback loop; the more you touch, the more oxytocin you have; the more oxytocin, the more you touch. But you need to initiate this feedback loop, by holding and touching and kissing your baby.” (Fieldman 2009)So if the cradling, gazing into baby’s eyes and interacting with them causes oxytocin, does the plastic bottle in hand actually increase it any? Couldn’t dads who want an exclusively breastfed baby do just the same minus bottle? Do dads actually find bottle feeding a bonding experience - or more of a bonding experience than other things they do with baby? Could bottle feeding actually just be considered bonding because it’s been suggested to us that it is, because of the culture we live in?
But what about help during the night?
Although the early weeks of life with a new baby can be hard for new parents, once these have passed it’s a lot easier to breastfeed at night than either person bottle feeding; if baby is co-sleeping or in a co-sleeping cot attached to the side of the bed, nobody even has to sit up. Compare that to the requirements to prepare substitutes safely and it’s a whole different ball game.
I also think it's a bit of a myth that if men feed the mother gets more sleep - believe me when baby is up and hungry nobody in close proximity is sleeping through it; when it's your baby, you wake! Another myth is that men need to feed to comfort baby - if baby suffers from colic or is unsettled it can be amazing what even a change of arms can do. With slightly older infants, if you are confident they are satiated and they are refusing the breast - dad can offer a clean little finger to suck and a comfy pair of rocking arms
A couple of studies have shown exclusively breastfeeding maximises sleep, particularly if co-sleeping/co-cot sleeping. A study from 2004 found the exclusively breastfeeding mothers slept approximately 20 minutes longer than mothers who were mix feeding (Gay et al). Another study examining quality of sleep found breastfeeding mothers got an average of 182 minutes of slow wave sleep, compared to 63 minutes for those exclusively bottle feeding. Slow-wave sleep is an important marker of sleep quality, and those with a higher percentage of slow-wave sleep report less daytime fatigue. (Blyton et al., 2002).
Whilst dads are often very keen to help out with bottle feeds in the first couple of weeks, I do have to wonder what percentage carry on with as much gusto once the new baby tiredness has kicked in and paternity leave has finished. Don’t some have jobs that need them to be on the ball at work? If mum is still on maternity leave and doesn’t need to get dressed till noon, isn’t it more likely she will end up doing more night feeds during the week anyway if they’re both shattered?
What can dads do?
I’m firmly of the opinion that “having a breastfed baby” is the responsibility of everyone connected to baby - and partners/husbands/dads even grans absolutely have an extremely significant job! But is the right role at the end of a bottle?
One mum commented:
Frankly I think my husbands parenting skills are in no way diminished by his physiological inability to lactate, and find it a bit insulting that he has to be "included" in this way, as if he has no other role.The truth is that there is lots of ways dad can help mum, bond, really enjoy the new baby and support breastfeeding:
- Get support - if problems arise perhaps dad can help locate some support in the area and go along with mum. On the breastfeeding helpline we get lots of calls from dads and often they can be amazing hands on support when given information and a chance. If you’re still pregnant, why not get your partner reading up on how to tell if breastfeeding is going as expected and what to do if not?
- Skin to skin - produces heaps of oxytocin and many babies are comforted by the broad warm chest of dad, just as they are snuggled against mum’s curves. Mums think nothing of hopping into bed for some newborn snuggles, time out for skin to skin with dad can be just as bonding.
- Bathing baby - ditch the baby bath and hop in together. Warm water produces oxytocin, as does skin contact and so both mums and dads report it being a great bonding time (and stops the screaming that can accompany some newborns in the bath!)
- Wearing baby - popping baby in a good baby carrier and heading off for a walk can give dad some one on one close contact time with baby and give mum chance for a bath and a snooze! If they don't fancy heading outdoors, many babies are content snuggled up pottering round the house.
- All together now - laying down to breastfeed can give mum chance for a well earned nap. If dad snuggles up too, he can keep an eye on baby (so mum can relax more) One dad in particular commented cuddling up with mum and baby when feeding made him feel particularly included.
- The collect and deliver – instead of expressing, some mums prefer to feed baby and then dad takes over care, before delivering baby back when hunger strikes. By the time they baby is a few weeks old, mums can often do this without waking fully - especially with the assistance of dad. As an added bonus the hormones delivered during the feed help mum drift nicely back off to sleep…
- Clean, cook, tidy! - mum has done pregnancy and labour and deserves a babymoon. If mum gets help in these other areas it can help her relax and enjoy this time.
- Massage for mum – an upper back and shoulder massage before a feed can be excellent in the early days; often mums hunch their shoulders when trying to breastfeed in mainstream positions, resulting in tension and stress across shoulders and the back of the neck. There is also an acupressure point between the shoulder blades near the neck, linking the nerves in the upper spine with the breasts; massaging this helps trigger the milk ejection reflex (letdown) in some mums and can be beneficial when nursing or expressing. At the very least mum should end up feeling more relaxed.
- Massage for baby – There are lots of reported reasons to massage your baby, again oxytocin is linked. Why not see if there is a DVD or book as a "how to", or even a newborn group you could all attend together if your partner has leave.
- Music & dance – A 2010 study by psychologists found that infants respond to the rhythm and tempo of music and find it more engaging than speech. They like to move in time to the music so get dads to flick on the stereo, and try a few different styles to find their groove.
- Snacks - in the early days very often as soon as mum feeds, hunger and thirst strike! having a partner on hand to deliver snacks and water is fantastic. If dad really wants to go for it, perhaps he could even bake healthy nutritious snacks? including seeds, grains and the essential good quality dark chocolate.
- Protector - ok so for cave woman this would likely have been from some big ass tiger, whereas nowadays it tends to be from general interference from a host of well meaning people. If dad is championing for mum, encouraging and helping if problems arise - not only is mum far more likely to succeed, but others will also be less quick to undermine. If they do, dad will be in the know enough to step up and protect what is ultimately not only a significant factor in his partners long term health, but the corner stone of his baby's.