Blokes, Boobs & Breastfeeding – Dads, Your Support Is Crucial
Men, here’s a quick quiz for you. What is the biggest cause of women giving up breastfeeding?
a) The pain of cracked nipples?
b) The constant demand for feeding from the baby?
c) Leaking breasts?
d) Difficulty in getting the baby to ‘latch on’ and obtain adequate milk?
e) None of the above?
Very few of the men who attend my parenting seminars get the correct answer. The answer is ‘e’.
While cracked nipples, feeding demands, leaking breasts and problems with ‘latching on’ can all take their toll and make feeding difficult in the early days, the vast majority of women can work through these problems and feed successfully and enjoyably within a few weeks.
Sadly, and often surprisingly for the men to whom I give the above question, the correct answer is that “Men [unsupportive of breastfeeding] are the biggest cause of women giving up breastfeeding.”
There is a significant amount of research indicating that where men are not supportive of breastfeeding, absolute breastfeeding rates are lower, and women who do breastfeed wean their babies earlier. So how could this be? Why are men the cause?
Men Want To Do Something… Anything!
Men do not wish to see their partners in pain or see them upset. For a few weeks breastfeeding can be both painful and difficult to learn, both for the mother and the baby. For most babies feeding is instinctive, but for many women, particularly the career woman who hasn’t seen many mothers breast-feeding, the notion of using her body to nourish another human can feel strange. Women need to learn how to breastfeed. Overcoming both physical and psychological barriers to feeding can take some time, but with the right support from the midwife or a breast-feeding counsellor, nearly all women can breast feed. During this difficult time of learning, a woman needs a man who will support her to learn, rather than one that will simply say, in an attempt to be helpful, “Come on, bottlefeeding isn’t that bad. Let’s not muck around with breastfeeding.”
Breastfeeding provides the following benefits:
- Breastmilk is exactly formulated to the needs of the baby at different times in its development;
- Breastfeeding has been shown to provide developmental benefits and breast-fed babies have higher IQs;
- Breastfed babies are less likely to develop allergies;
- Breastfeeding is convenient – no stuffing around with bottles, teats, sterilisers, spoons, containers…;
- Breastfed babies have fewer illnesses than non-breast fed babies;
- Breastfeeding lowers the risk of ovarian and breast cancer, osteoporosis and heart disease in the mother;
- Breast milk is cheap;
- Breastfeeding causes no harm to the environment compared to formula milk; and
- Breastfeeding increases the bonds between baby and mother.
When men understand the vast benefits of breastfeeding compared to formula feeding, the research shows that they will support their partner if she has a tricky time establishing feeding. If men really think they need to do something about their partner’s breast-feeding problems, then they can read the extensive amount of material about the benefits of breastfeeding and attend an Australian Breastfeeding Association (ABA) course.
Boobs Are For Sex… Aren’t They?
There are two aspects to this concern. Firstly, some men have only ever considered their partner’s breasts as sex toys and not milk bars, and secondly, some men believe that breast-feeding interferes with their partner’s sex drive.
The answer to the first point is, “Get over it.” Breasts are indeed beautiful parts of the female body and men innately seem to be attracted to them. Maybe there is some deep evolutionary purpose to men’s attraction to breasts, but more certainly we know that the biological purpose of breasts is to nurture the next generation. The sexual pleasure that both partners get from breasts is simply a bonus. Get your priorities right!
The second point is more complex. Breastfeeding is controlled by a number of hormones, including the hormone oxytocin, which is a powerful love hormone. See my article Babies, Blokes and Bonding for more information on this. The cocktail of hormones that governs breastfeeding can in fact make some women desire sex more often while for others, breastfeeding reduces their sex drive. If the man’s partner falls into the second group, then giving up breastfeeding may not be the answer. The tiredness of parenting a young baby, as well as the rigours of childbirth, is more likely to have an impact on your sex life than breastfeeding.
Keep in mind that if you throw yourself into parenting as an active Dad, then you too will be tired, and sleep might be preferable to sex for a few months after the birth of your baby!
I Don’t Want Other Men Seeing My Partner’s Breasts!
This concern is linked very much to the view that breasts are for sex rather than for nourishment. Once a man comes to terms with his feelings about breastfeeding and understands the great benefits to his child from breastfeeding, this becomes an irrelevant issue.
However, the practicalities of breastfeeding mean that women are often very discreet breastfeeders. As a rule, most women don’t spend their time flashing their breasts around when feeding, and as babies get better at the latching on, few people would notice the brief flash of a nipple. A final point is that most other men actually look away when the woman is attaching your baby. Men seem to have an innate understanding that staring at their best mate’s partner’s boobs whilst she is feeding the baby, is not considered polite.
If She’s Breastfeeding, She Can’t Work And We Need The Money
This is a furphy. It is quite possible and practical to express breastmilk and store it for feeding your baby when the mother has to be at work. Anything that can be done to extend the period of breastfeeding will be valuable to your baby’s welfare. For women who don’t express, many government workplaces, and more and more private workplaces, allow breastfeeding breaks and provide a quiet room for the mother to feed your baby.
If you are concerned about money, breastfeeding is far cheaper than formula feeding. Breastfeeding costs between $50 and $100 per year for the extra kilojoules of energy your partner will require to create milk. Formula (ignoring the costs of bottles, teats, water and the electricity cost of heating the formula and sterilising all the gear) costs between $1,400 and $3,000 per year, depending on the quality of the formula.
I Want To Bond With My Baby Too!
There is no doubt that breastfeeding is a most wonderful bonding mechanism for mother and baby and some fathers feel that by not feeding the baby they are missing out on bonding with their baby. But there are many other ways of bonding with your baby, such as cuddling with her on your bare chest, changing his nappy, bathing her, playing with him, burping her, comforting him, dressing her… There are so many tasks in bringing up a baby that simply throwing yourself into baby care and maintenance will allow you to bond successfully with your baby. Leave the feeding to mum for at least the first six months.
If you do become an expert in baby care and maintenance then you won’t only be bonding with your baby, you will also be bonding with your partner. A mother cannot resist a Dad who is willing to be a good father to their baby. It makes them feel all warm and loving… What was that about enjoying sex again?
The benefits of breastfeeding are so great that there are many resources available to assist parents with issues relating to breastfeeding. If you have engaged your own midwife then use her skills, otherwise you can’t go past the services offered by the Australian Breastfeeding Association (ABA). See their website: http://www.breastfeeding.asn.au. The ABA offers a 24/7 help line for breastfeeding problems. If you’re in the USA, check out La Leche League.
David Vernon is a father and freelance writer. Based in Canberra he writes about science, parenting, health and history. In mid-2006 he completed his third book, an anthology of birth stories told by men, called ‘Men at Birth’. He has just released his fourth book, ‘With Women’.
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