How to Support Your Breastfeeding Partner
Let me start with a warning. I am a dad writing about breastfeeding. I haven’t personally experienced the highs and lows of breastfeeding, from the oxytocin rush that accompanies a good latch and a happily feeding baby, to the anxiety and physical discomfort that often precede it. I would never presume to tell any woman anything about a subject as sensitive, personal, and intimate as breastfeeding, and this essay makes no attempt to do so. Instead, this column is aimed at dads and other nonbreastfeeding partners who are (or soon will be) watching as their partners wrestle with the challenges breastfeeding can throw at them.
My wife is a lactation consultant, so breast milk is kind of a big deal in our household. But breastfeeding is, above all, a personal choice, and families may decline to breastfeed, choose to supplement, or run into various insurmountable obstacles. This essay, however, is for expecting or new parents whose partners have decided to breastfeed, and who want to help. While it may be tempting to treat feeding time as down time, giving you a few minutes to check your email, there are many ways you can support your partner during breastfeeding, especially when the going gets rough.
When my wife and I had our first son, breastfeeding was touch and go. Our little guy was a bit jaundiced, so his suck was weak, which made my wife’s milk come in slower, which prevented him from gaining weight quickly, which made his suck weak…. It was a stressful time, compounded by the natural exhaustion, emotion, and anxiety that hits new parents after birth. For us, breastfeeding became a team sport. Every two hours, she pumped, then manually expressed breast milk into a spoon, which we then transferred into a small syringe. As she held our son to her breast, I slipped a tiny tube into the corner of his mouth, to ensure he was getting enough milk in each feed. After a couple of weeks, we made it over the hump. It was an exhausting two-person job but it was also an incredible bonding experience for all three of us as a new family.
With that experience in mind, I’ve identified four roles a non-breastfeeding partner can take on to help with nursing. This list isn’t exhaustive, and some ideas may apply better than others. But hopefully it’ll get the juices flowing (so to speak) in terms of ways we can support our partners as they work around the clock to nourish our kiddos.
Gatekeeper. Right after the baby is born, people will clamor to see the new arrival. Your parents will want a viewing, as will your partner’s parents. Aunts and uncles, friends and godparents—everyone will want a turn. And of course, it’s a fun, social, and magical time. But you can be the bouncer. It’s extremely important that the baby be How to Support Your Breastfeeding Partner skin-to-skin with mama, stimulating her breast as frequently as possible in those early days. In fact (according to the lactation consultant I live with), early, frequent breast stimulation can increase receptors of a hormone called prolactin, which is believed to increase milk production. In other words, your partner needs to feel comfortable enough to be topless a lot in those crucial early days. It won’t do to skip a feeding because Aunt Sally wants to post an Instagram with the baby. That means it may fall to you to notice the baby’s feeding signs—or just watch the clock—and clear the room periodically, allowing mama (and you!) to get that key skin-to-skin time with baby.
Sanitizer. Breastfeeding often means pumping. And pumping means tubes, bottles, flanges, and various attachments that get caked with milk and require frequent and thorough cleaning. That’s where you come in. The last thing your partner wants to do when she’s done pumping is clean the darn thing. Set up a system where she knows she can drop the pump somewhere and you will sterilize its parts as needed.
Equipment Manager. Make sure your partner has everything she needs to be as comfortable as possible. Keep stocked up on healthy, high-calorie snacks that are easily eaten with one hand (trail mix is a good option). See that she always has a full glass of water at her side. If she needs heating pads to ease the pain or help get the milk flowing, have them ready to go. Make sure her phone, tablet, or Kindle is within arm’s reach. Basically, take care of all of her needs, so she can focus on the baby’s.
Champion. Most importantly, provide your partner with the emotional support she needs, especially if breastfeeding is challenging. This can be especially tough for men, who often see a problem and want to fix it as rapidly and effectively as possible. If breastfeeding isn’t going great at first, and your partner is in tears and is unsure she can do it, your instincts may kick in to say, “Let’s just use formula! I can pick some up right now. Problem solved.” If your family is committed to breastfeeding, resist that urge. Help her push through, even though it may be physically uncomfortable and emotionally taxing. Research solutions, contact lactation consultants for advice, look into milk banks or other options. Conversely, if your partner has decided breastfeeding is just not an option, support her in that choice as well. In the end, you’re a team, and your bedrock support can do wonders in the whirlwind following birth.
In sum, we non-breastfeeding partners can be more than spectators to nursing. We can —and should—choose to be active and supportive participants as our partners embark on this selfless and extraordinary act of love.
Cody Harris is the father of two adorable boys, and the husband of one incredibly knowledgeable lactation consultant. When he’s not chasing after his little ones, he practices as an attorney in San Francisco.