Celebrating dads with restructured breastfeeding support

Male nipples. What is their function? Well, if you are the parent of a breastfed baby, you have most likely had the experience of watching your infant try to latch or successfully latch onto dad’s chestly protrusions. For most parents, it’s a funny story to tell. But what if it’s more than that? My rudimentary research leaves me to believe that babies don’t seek their father’s nipples out of confusion or randomness. Instead, male nipples may serve as fleshy pacifiers and an important portal into father-baby bonding.

In honor of dads, this Father’s Day we decided to do something different on Our Milky Way; we take a glimpse into two fathers’ breastfeeding experiences.

The stories they share and their partner’s reflections prove that we need to modify the way we view dads’ roles and restructure the support we offer them.

Hope Elser, Union Institute and University Maternal Child Health student, WIC breastfeeding peer counselor and mother of two, and her husband Jason were kind enough to share their parenting journey with me. Hope and Jason are the parents of Kaitlyn, 6, and nursling Ryan, 18 months.

Additionally, I formally interviewed my darling husband Addison. Our daughter Willow just turned 22 months. Like Hope and Ryan, we practice natural term breastfeeding. We’re also excited to announce that we’re expecting our second child in early November.photo

Hope, Jason and I engaged in very friendly conversation. We chuckled about our toddlers’ requests for milk from dad. Then, Hope made a profound observation: Children request breastmilk from the people they feel nurtured by- at least this has been our common experience.

Addison and Jason let me in on the ways they feel most effective in connecting with their children.

For Jason, bathtime and plenty of skin to skin contact are great ways for him to build a relationship with his kids.

Addison says reading and playing with Willow on her activity mat are important bonding opportunities.

“I never ever felt like I was taking something away from [Jason] by breastfeeding,” Hope explains. “I think he took a lot of pressure off of me because he just found other ways to bond with them.”

I wish I could say the same; after interviewing Addison, I do feel like I took something away from him.

Interestingly, Addison cites the bond that Willow and I share as the best and worst part of being the father of a breastfed child.

“Willow can be so upset sometimes and you just nurse and she is so happy,” Addison says.

photoBreastfeeding is also an extremely effective way for me to put Willow to sleep. Up until about a few weeks ago, Addison hadn’t been able to put her to sleep unless he drove around in the car with her.

To be honest, before our interview, I always felt like it was Addison’s fault that Willow generally prefers to come to me when she’s upset, hurt, scared or tired. I felt like if he would have put more effort into bonding with her in other ways beyond feeding, he would share the same relationship that she and I do. But I’m not so sure that theory is valid.

Looking back, I wonder if encouraging my husband to “nurse” Willow would have allowed him to experience what it’s like for me to be a breastfeeding mom.

Addison continually expresses interest in actively offering our next child bottles of breastmilk, a request I continually deny.

Yet, I am completely open to the idea of male nursing as a nurturing act. Addison makes clear that the thought of male nursing makes him very uncomfortable.

Writer and director Peter Templeman made a fascinating and provocative short film called Milk Men which explores male lactation and breastfeeding and is certainly worth watching if you’re interested in this model.

Hope tells me that as a lactation professional, she sees moms and babies all day long, every day but very rarely sees fathers coming in for support. When she asks mothers about their partner’s feelings, perceptions and concerns about breastfeeding, most of them reply that it doesn’t matter because he’s not a part of it- not necessarily that the fathers are absent all together, but they are uninvolved in the process of breastfeeding.

Hope argues that fathers should very much be a part of the process.

“You have to allow him to be,” she advises. In the same breath, “Moms don’t know how to integrate dads into the breastfeeding relationship anymore than dads do,” she says.

She’s spot on when it comes to my husband and I. Leaving my pride at being able to satisfy Willow aside, I hypothesize that it’s difficult for me to acknowledge the important role a dad can play because my father has been absent all of my life. I learned about parenting from my mother who fulfilled both responsibilities.

I pushed Addison away when I took on virtually every aspect of parenting beyond earning a living. I didn’t have a clue how to allow him to integrate himself into our nursing relationship and he didn’t know how to advocate for himself. I never learned from my mother how to consider a co-parent or partner. The breastfeeding education Addison and I did receive together was so moronic. Perhaps we are psychologically flawed in that we didn’t find a healthy balancing act on our own… But then again, how would new, first-time parents learn do to this without support and guidance?

What if we had been introduced to male nursing? Would this mutual engagement in such an intimate act with our infant have allowed us to better connect as parents?

Our nation is most certainly not ready for the promotion of male nursing; we can hardly handle images of mothers feeding their babies, let alone an infant suckling at its father’s breast. Gasp!!

A less controversial solution is to better include fathers in breastfeeding imagery in other ways.

Take a look at this screenshot of a Google Images breastfeeding search. The images are stunningly beautiful, but who is missing?googlebreast

I smell a problem here, especially when we consider Addison’s and Jason’s thoughts about breastfeeding before they expected their own children: they didn’t have any.

“I never really came across [breastfeeding] at all,” Addison says. “I didn’t have any knowledge about what good things can come of it or anything like that.”

He doesn’t recall any of his family members breastfeeding. Before Willow’s birth, he had never noticed a woman breastfeeding in public and says he can’t remember any times seeing breastfeeding in the media.

And before Hope decided that she wanted to breastfeed, Jason hadn’t thought about breastfeeding either.

The inclusion of partners in breastfeeding imagery might also allow mothers to acknowledge the part a father can play on the nursing team.

I firmly believe that the decision to breastfeed is ultimately that of the mother. Her body. Her choice. Simple.

But when fathers are not engaged in any kind of conversation about breastfeeding prenatally, we pose the risk of disengagement throughout parenthood.

Addison wasn’t involved in my decision to breastfeed Willow. It isn’t something either of us remember having a specific conversation about and it was never something Addison questioned (aside from his initial concerns with me breastfeeding in public.)

Like my husband and I, Hope and Jason don’t recall having a conversation about deciding how to feed their baby.

“I just knew that I was going to breastfeed and having support to do so was very encouraging, especially from a man,” Hope says of her first born. “That was a new experience having that kind of support in such an intimate way.”

I am impressed with Jason’s ability to offer support without direction, because he expresses feelings of unpreparedness. He says he wishes there had been breastfeeding education and support offered directly to him as the father.

In fact, research teams in Italy, Brazil, and Australia have evaluated the impact of training dads to support their breastfeeding partners. They’ve discovered that educating fathers about basic breastfeeding management increases the duration and/or exclusivity of breastfeeding.

“If I would have had a little bit of knowledge about the dad’s role, we may have understood what was wrong with Ryan and why he wouldn’t latch earlier,” he says of Ryan’s tongue tie.

Much the same, Willow and I initially had a tumultuous time perfecting our latch thanks to the infamous hospital birth with all of the booby traps perfectly in place.

Addison spent days and nights with me enticing Willow to open her tiny mouth so I could shove my bloody nipples into her face. Knowing what I know now, I cringe when I look back on those days.

“I fetched lanolin and nipple diapers,” Addison remembers of my sore but surprisingly leaky breasts.

“I could have called the specialist and had them come help,” he says in hindsight.

Breastfeeding advocates spend a lot of time sharing information about why dads should care about breastfeeding. For example, The Leaky Boob shares Breastfeeding- Good for Dads Too.

Similarly, we put a lot of energy into communicating how dads can effectively support their breastfeeding partner. For instance, Best For Babes recently came out with Listen Up, Dads! 10 Ways You Can Support Your Breastfeeding Partner. It’s a simple yet fabulous resource for new dads and I cannot deny that the support dad offers is a crucial part of building a successful breastfeeding relationship between mother and baby.

But what about support for the supporters? Tailored support for the dads like Addison and Jason.

The breastfeeding support we offer is so much more complicated than the pamphlets handed to new parents directing them to LLL meetings. And the general breastfeeding advice new parents stumble upon from Google searches doesn’t even scratch the surface of what needs to be available.

“I wanted to be involved in everything,” Addison says of birth and breastfeeding. “I didn’t really know what I was supposed to do.”

The biggest challenge for Jason as a father to breastfed children is the ridicule he gets from family members and in-laws, pressuring Hope to wean.

“I get it practically every time I talk to my dad,” he says.

Jason also admits missing having his wife’s breast to himself. This seems to be a common concern for fathers. It is fascinating and frightening what our culture has done to the female body. Why is it difficult for us to separate breasts’ primary function from sexual pleasure? After all, does the penis not excrete urine as well as serve a sexual function?

Creating dad-centered support groups or simply encouraging and accepting fathers into mother-centered support groups might generate more diverse conversation about the issues fathers of breastfed babies face. It may also lessen the pressure on dads and in turn, equip them with better support tools for their breastfeeding partners.

Jason adds that support or counseling groups “would get them hungry for different ways to be hands on and to be a part of the nursing team.”

Addison remembers that we didn’t have any proper lactation support aside from my occasional phone calls and incessant emails to our Boobie Guru Ms. Cindy Turner-Maffei, MA, ALC, IBCLC of Healthy Children Project.

Moreover, leaving young children to return to work is a reality for a lot of dads. Unfortunately, only 11 percent of families in the U.S. have access to paid family leave through their employers, Anayah Sangodele-Ayoka of MomsRising.org reports in Celebrating Fathers Who ‘Leave’ to Be Home.

Jason was granted just two weeks family leave after Kaitlyn was born.

Then, when Kaitlyn was four months old, he was expected to leave for a tour in Korea and didn’t return until his daughter was 18 months old.

“That really pushed some levels of our relationship,” Jason admits. “And coming back from Korea it was kind of hard being around Kaitlyn because I kind of didn’t know her. We had to experience each other all over again.”

Jason expresses guilt in that he was unable to spend the time with his daughter at a young age like he has with his son now that he’s retired from the military.

And so my newfound obsession with male nursing continues. While it is unlikely that Kaitlyn would have immediately taken to Jason’s breast, could male nursing act as a bonding device for the fathers who spend much of their time away from home?

I’m so grateful that Addison’s job allows for an extremely flexible schedule and has never forced him overseas.

“I felt really comfortable leaving because I know how knowledgeable you are and I didn’t think you were going to need me,” he says. “I was very comfortable with you as a mother.”

He adds that he’s comfortable knowing that he’s needed to make a living.

While the challenges and sacrifices that fathers make are often overlooked, Addison and Jason reveal great appreciation for breastfeeding.

“We don’t have to make sure we have bottles packed,” Addison cites as a benefit. “We don’t have to get up in the middle of the night to go fix a bottle.”

“There’s something really special about [Hope] sitting in the chair holding her baby close to her and giving him exactly what his body needs, his heart needs and his spirit needs,” Jason says. “They seem so in tune with each other.”

The challenges Addison and Jason have faced allow them to offer valuable advice to new fathers.

“If your partner is struggling, you should seek the help of a lactation professional to help her because it will only make it easier,” Addison advises. “It doesn’t hurt to go get help if you think that there is something wrong.”

Jason suggests gathering as much breastfeeding information as possible because knowledge is power.

As he puts it: “Mortal Kombat said it the best.”

Let’s make a move and revolutionize the breastfeeding support we offer fathers so that we can continue to grow and strengthen support for our moms and babies.

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