How Can Fathers Better Support Breastfeeding Mothers?

December 11, 2015

The early days of having a newborn are fraught, anxious times for any parent, no matter how experienced they may be. Whether the concerns are about feeding, care or attachment, both mothers and fathers experience many sleepless nights worrying that they are not being the best parents they can be.

Research conducted by APHRC in Nairobi shows that concerns about bonding and attachment with a newborn can influence relationships between fathers and mothers – and can have an impact on one of the most important things new parents can do for their children: making sure they are exclusively breastfed for the first six months of their lives.

Research done the world over has touted the benefits of exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of a baby’s life. Breastfed babies are said to have stronger immune systems, making them more resistant to disease and infection throughout their life span; the risks of contracting juvenile diabetes, multiple sclerosis, heart disease and cancer, are less for breastfed children than their formula-fed counterparts.

There are also a number of health benefits for mothers who breastfeed. They are less likely to develop osteoporosis later in life, have an easier time losing the weight gained during pregnancy and have a lower risk of breast, uterine and ovarian cancer.

Breastfeeding is also a more economical choice than formula, at least initially, which can help to numb the shock of having another mouth to feed in households that are stretching financially to meet their needs.

Despite all of these documented benefits of breastfeeding, backed by recommendations by the World Health Organization supporting exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months, it remains an elusive practice in busy lives. One reason is the time it requires from mothers, many of whom have to return to their workplace sooner than they’d like. So how do we improve uptake? One way, according to APHRC’s research, is to find ways to engage fathers in supporting breastfeeding as a way to improve their bonding and attachment to their new infants.

Importance of the father’s support

APHRC’s participatory research on maternal, infant and young child nutrition demonstrates that while fathers may be willing to be more supportive – physically, financially and emotionally – some of them do not know how to help. Some fathers contend that African culture has clearly delineated their roles: to be providers, working outside the home to support their families.  During a focus group discussion (FGD) conducted, one mother summed up a position shared by many as below:

“’You are the mother; it is your job to do everything… I go to work, I bring money home for you and the baby’… They (men) don’t know the procedure and they don’t know if they are supposed to help” (A mother attending FGD with middle-income mothers)

Entrenched gender roles in the household were also cited as inhibitors to breastfeeding. When fathers criticized new mothers on the way they were feeding the children, or abdicated responsibility for the other non-feeding components of child-rearing such as household chores, soothing the baby or changing soiled clothes, breastfeeding is hampered as well as their relationships with the spouses. This prevented mothers from continuing to breastfeed consistently. Not feeling cared for or supported meant that mothers had to prioritize other things;

“ It was just almost traumatizing for me and that is the time when my marriage faced a bit of a test because I could not understand why my husband would not take that baby and feed it because I really was tired” (Mother who had undergone CS)

So how do you help a father to support breastfeeding?  

Arming fathers with knowledge is one essential way to encourage their support for breastfeeding. Those of us who advocate for improved and extended breastfeeding must find new and innovative methods to reach fathers with information about the benefits of breastmilk. Too often at the clinic and even at the health system level, information is provided for mothers only. Better, and more family-friendly sensitization and education would go a long way towards making fathers more involved in the early days of their child’s lives.

Even if a father cannot feed his child, he can still do other things; care and support are not limited to suckling, even at the beginning. Most important is for a mother to feel supported by her partner, in ways that are both visible – such as picking up around the house, or caring for the other children at home – and invisible, such as making sure she has a comfortable place to sit while feeding the baby or a supportive shoulder to lean on.

This research by APHRC and other similar studies have demonstrated the areas where fathers are able to support breastfeeding. Providing fathers with the education and sensitization they need about the importance of breastfeeding and the need to support breastfeeding mothers can only help ensure a healthy start for mothers and newborns and contribute to the achievement of the third Sustainable Development Goal: a reduction of neonatal and under-5 mortality.