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Breastfeeding & Fatherhood: How A Father’s Support Enriches The Breastfeeding Experience For The Family

By Patrick Houser

Throughout our history, the incidence of mothers breastfeeding their babies has run the spectrum from feast to famine. Very long ago, nearly every mother breastfed; nature obviously had a good plan. More recently, breastfeeding became unfashionable, and “proper society” would not even consider it. Many only breastfed if they could not afford a wet nurse. Mothers today often approach breastfeeding with ambiguity, and fathers are having an influence on their decision.

Research has shown that 98.1 percent of mothers working outside the home breastfed when fathers were completely supportive. However, when fathers were indifferent, mothers only breastfed 26.9 percent of the time.

Who are these fathers, and what is the best way forward for mothers, fathers and babies?

Father’s Perspectives

I have gotten into trouble with generalizations in the past. But in the interest of discovering the archetypal picture, I will risk making a few. Some fathers think less is best, and the sooner he gets “his” breasts, and his wife, back, the better. The father in this position may make his opinion known, thereby creating influence over the crucial mother/child breastfeeding and bonding relationship. There is also a “shadow” inherent here, indicating uncertainty as to where bonding with Dad will come from.

Other fathers remain indifferent, standing back and deferring to the mother to “let her make her own choice.” While seemingly acceptable, such a stance might have the effect of Dad feeling excluded—even if he excluded himself—and therefore missing out on potential benefits of his own. This approach could also lead the mother and child to not being as well provided for as they could be.

Lastly, there are fathers and mothers who make joint decisions regarding breastfeeding, and both “participate” fully.

Studies reveal that a father’s hormonal activity increases during his partner’s pregnancy, and more so if he is present at the birth and closely involved after. When a father is intimate with his child, especially through skin-to-skin contact, his oxytocin production increases. Elevated oxytocin in a father is recognized as a key component in jump-starting and maintaining his nurturing instincts and bonding with his baby. Hormones are chemicals secreted by an endocrine gland, triggered by nerve cells that regulate the function of specific tissues or organs. They are essentially chemical messengers that transport signals from one cell to another. In a way, they tell us what to do and how to act.

Prolactin, vasopressin and oxytocin are among the hormones that are found at higher levels in men around the time of birth. Increased production of prolactin is known to promote bonding, attachment and caring. Raised vasopressin levels cause a man to want to protect his family and be at home, rather than on the prowl in search of a mate. (Vasopressin is also known as the “monogamy hormone,” fostering commitment.) Oxytocin is also produced in men and women during loving contact. Because of this it has been called “the hormone of love” by experts such as Dr. Michel Odent, Sheila Kitzinger and Dr. Sarah Buckley. It is also a necessary hormone for a mother’s body to produce in order to ensure a successful pregnancy and labor, and it plays a role in breastfeeding, as well. Since couples are already in the habit of producing oxytocin during intimacy, fathers can contribute this dimension of their relationship to the mother’s labor and breastfeeding time.