Q: Everyone says that new mothers should breastfeed their babies but I’ve never really known why. Isn’t formula just as good for our child? And, I know this sounds nuts, but is there anything I can to do to stay involved while my wife is nursing? I feel so left out.
A: Before their babies are born, just about any expectant father you’d ask would say that breastfeeding is the best way to feed a baby and that his partner should nurse their child for as long as possible. And why not, just consider some of these advantages:
- There’s no preparation, no heating, no bottles or dishes to wash
- It’s free–formula ain’t cheap these days
- It never runs out and there’s no waste either
- It’s good for your partner, giving her a chance to bond with the baby
- It’s good for your baby–it’s the perfect blend of nutrients.
Breastfed kids have a much lower chance than formula-fed kids of developing food allergies, respiratory- and gastrointestinal illnesses, or of becoming obese as adults. It is also thought to transmit the mother’s immunity to certain diseases. Diapers don’t stink–breastfed babies produce stool that smells almost sweet–especially when you compare it to the formula-fed kind.
After the baby comes, though, a lot of new fathers have a change of heart. It’s not that they don’t support breastfeeding–they still think it’s the best thing for everyone concerned. It’s just that the whole thing makes them feel left out.
Breastfeeding “perpetuates the exclusive relationship the mother and infant experienced during pregnancy,” writes Dr. Pamela Jordan, one of the few researchers ever to explore the effects of breastfeeding on men. As a result, it’s pretty common for new breastfeeding-spectator fathers to feel some or all of the following:
- a fear that it’s going harder to bond and develop a relationship with his child
- a sense of inadequacy, that nothing he could ever do could ever compete with his partner’s breasts
- a slight feeling of resentment toward the baby who has “come between” him and his partner
- a sense of relief when the baby is weaned because he’ll finally have a chance to catch up
- a sense that because women can breastfeed they somehow possess the knowledge and skills that make them naturally better parents (which means, of course, that men just aren’t suited for the job).
Studies of new and expectant parents show that they consider feeding to be the most important aspect of caring for an infant. And there’s no question that if your partner is breastfeeding you’re at a bit of a disadvantage in that regard. But just because she’s got control of the breasts and the food that’s in them doesn’t mean that you have to back off. There are a number of ways you can get involved in the process and help make breastfeeding as pleasant an experience as possible for everyone:
- Bottle feed the baby with breast-milk. But don’t push too hard on this one; many women find expressing milk (manually or with a pump) uncomfortable or even painful. If you decide to go this route, wait a few weeks before introducing the bottle so your baby will have a chance to get completely comfortable with nursing on a real breast.
- Try not to take it personally if your baby seems less than interested in taking a bottle from you. Once they’ve gotten used to their mothers nipples, some babies get a little surprised when presented with a plastic one. Others may simply refuse to take a bottle at all, probably just on principle. But don’t give up. Plastic nipples, like real ones, come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. So you may have to do a little experimenting before you and your baby discover the kind she likes best (which may not have anything in common with the kind you like best.)
- Get plenty of private time with the baby for activities that provide regular skin-to-skin contact. Things like changing diapers, cuddling, putting to sleep, bathing, and even just sitting in a chair reading while the baby naps on your shirt-less chest are great. They give you and the baby a chance to be alone together and create your own relationship. The more this happens, the more you’ll feel confident in your own abilities as a parent.
- If you can’t do the skin-to-skin thing, spend plenty of time with your baby just hanging out. Take him for walks in the stroller, put him in a front-pack and go grocery shopping, whatever you can think of to be together.
- Support your partner any way you can. The current thinking among pediatricians is that women should try to breastfeed for at least a year. Interestingly, studies have shown that the more supportive their partners, the longer women breastfeed and the more confident they feel in their ability to do so.
- Be patient if your partner seems less interested in sex. Imagine, for example, that someone has been crawling all over you and sucking on your breasts five or six times a day for fifteen or twenty minutes a crack. You just might be somewhat less than completely enthusiastic about having yet another person grope you at the end of the day. Your partner’s nursing may also affect intercourse as well. Nursing women produce lower levels of the ovarian hormones that are responsible for producing vaginal lubrication. Without that lubrication, intercourse can be uncomfortable or even painful. So instead of thinking that your partner isn’t aroused by you any more, just stock up on a good water-based lubricant.