You can breastfeed without help from others, but that makes it much harder. Statistics show that having a good support system increases the chances that people will breastfeed and breastfeed for longer.
What Support Looks Like
Support can mean a lot of different things. It might mean having enthusiastic cheerleaders around who think breastfeeding is a good idea and don’t think you’re crazy for doing it. It might mean having people around who have done it before and can offer you some helpful pointers. It could also mean having an extra set of hands to help you do the jobs that are harder to do when you’re spending a lot of time breastfeeding your baby, since you’ll be the ONLY one who can do that job. You might not have one person who can fill all those needs, and you also might not have multiple people to provide all the levels of support.
Most people don’t have big extensive support systems anymore. Your extended family might be scattered and not close. You might not know your neighbors or have close friends nearby. This makes the work of new parenting a lot harder.
When quick, easy travel wasn’t possible, people stayed closer together. They lived in smaller communities where they were surrounded by family and neighbors who had known them their whole lives. They watched the older people have babies, feed babies, and parent children. They helped each other and knew“It takes a village” to raise children.
Now you might have to raise your children without a true village, but it doesn’t mean you’ll have an easy time doing it all by yourself. It might seem like people brag about being able to “do it all”, or be masters of multi-tasking. It might even seem like people are getting lots of awards and praise for this, but in truth there are no awards and most people suffer for trying to “do it all”. This is an unfair expectation of new parents. You likely won’t feel like you are doing your very best at anything when you’re trying to do everything alone.
Breastfeeding might be something that you think you can do alone, but it can be surprisingly complicated.
It can be difficult logistically.
You only have two hands. Breastfeeding a newborn baby often takes both hands. You can’t do something else at the same time. You just have to sit there and feed your baby. Scratch that…..you GET to just sit there and feed your baby! It can be a really wonderful experience to disconnect from everything else and feed and watch your new little person. This is a healthy and beautiful thing.
This is also hard to do when you’re worried about how to get dinner out of the oven, or how to feed the hungry dogs that are circling your legs. You might also be worried about sending that email or making a grocery list. You wonder if you’re ever going to get this baby off your nipple so you can finally go take a shower! Having another set of hands around can remove at least half of these burdens so you can relax and enjoy feeding your baby and let the baby feed as often and as long as they need to. This will help you develop a great milk supply and keep things progressing smoothly.
It can be difficult emotionally.
Breastfeeding isn’t always easy. Most people will have some challenges at first. It might hurt. You might have a really fussy baby which might make it hard to calm them down so they’ll eat. Your baby might be really sleepy and struggle to finish eating without taking a nap. You might worry that you don’t have enough milk. You might worry because it seems like you have too much milk and your breasts are so swollen and engorged that the baby can’t even get a grip on the nipple! Encountering some problems at first is very normal.
Lactation consultants can help you with problems that you can’t get figured out on your own. A lot of the time, there’s just a short adjustment period which will pass. Things will most always get a lot easier, but not everyone knows this. You might start to doubt yourself and whether you want to continue breastfeeding. When this happens, having a supportive person around can help you rally. They can encourage you to stick with it and remind you that it will get easier. They can offer to find some help for you. When you have people around you who support your decision to breastfeed, it can make you feel a lot more confident and give you the emotional fuel you need to keep going.
It can be difficult intellectually.
There is a lot of research that tells us that babies are probably born with the instincts to breastfeed, but parents don’t really have the instincts to offer breastfeeding to their babies. That was true for me. I had not seen much breastfeeding before I had my own first baby, and I honestly had NO idea what to do. I thought I would just know how, but I didn’t. Luckily, I was directed to a lactation consultant, and together, we got it figured out.
You might not have a family member or friend who can show you how to breastfeed! It’s also very likely that your partner has no idea what to do and can’t help you either. This is where you will probably need a different kind of support. Lactation consultants are experts and IBCLCs are lactation consultants with a lot of training and the highest level of certification. Because of recent legislation under the Affordable Care Act, most people can get lactation support covered by insurance. It is VERY worth doing. You may or may not need or plan to seek out professional lactation support. Even if you don’t, most hospitals offer it! This is a great opportunity to take advantage of that type of care. They are there to help solve problems, but also to educate.
Ask lots of questions, even if you’re not having any problems. Things sometimes come up later. I interviewed hospital IBCLC, Dee Huerta, about this topic and she offered some great advice! She said that people who have JUST given birth might be a little too overwhelmed to take in lots of information. They may not even remember seeing a lactation consultant! She suggested that partners should be there for these visits and be VERY attentive and even take lots of notes. It can be really hard to pay close attention and take in so much information right after you give birth, and while you’re trying to take care of a brand new baby. Partners can often take in the information better at that time, and by taking notes, they can fill you in later or offer some suggestions when problems do come up.
What can partners do?
Depending on how much time they can get away from work, partners can usually help a lot with the logistics and with the emotional support if they understand that they are needed. To help in a very hands-on way, your partner can:
- make the grocery list.
- feed the dogs.
- get dinner out of the oven.
- hold the baby skin-to-skin and bond between feedings so you can finally take a shower.
- do the laundry.
- clean the house.
- change diapers.
- bathe the baby.
- keep visits from friends and family short. Hopefully they are there to help, that’s great! They can help and then go, unless your partner wants them to stay. This is OK. Hopefully, people understand that you need to rest and have plenty of privacy during this recovery time. If they don’t, that has to be OK. Your needs come first.
- be available to bring water and snacks or anything else you need while you are feeding the baby.
wake up with you for night feedings. Your partner can help by getting the baby for the feeding then burp the baby and put them back to sleep. They might even help by changing a diaper or some wet sheets.
- entertain the baby in between feedings! Sometimes babies seem to eat almost constantly. That’s a very good and normal thing. It’s called cluster feeding, and it’s how the milk supply increases as a baby grows. This happens at big growth milestones and might last a day or two. Especially when that is happening, you might need a touch break. You might feel like you’re being constantly OVER touched and might just want some time alone. I remember begging my husband to just take the baby for a walk or something so I could clean my house or do something that was NOT holding a baby for as many minutes as I could get.
generally just take care of the things that are NOT feeding the baby. Especially at first.
The thing that might be the most important of all is to get emotional support from your partner. It can be very hard to carry on through early breastfeeding struggles when partners are not encouraging. Instead of saying, “I’ll go get some formula. That will be a lot easier.”, it usually feels much better when they:
- let you cry on their shoulder and just hold you.
- tell you they know it’s hard now, but that it will get easier soon.
- tell you that they’re so proud of you for wanting to do this because they know it’s so good for your baby.
- ask you if there is anything they can do to support you
- offer to call a lactation consultant or someone else for support if you think that would help.
What partners should NOT do
These suggestions might seem obvious to you, but these things happen ALL THE TIME! It’s hard for partners to watch you struggle. Partners usually want to help and solve problems. Sometimes this is appropriate, but sometimes things just have to be hard for a little while and it’s important to stay positive and encouraging. As the partner, it can be really hard to understand just how much impact certain words and actions might have on someone who just gave birth and is struggling to be a good parent AND breastfeed. These are a few things partners might want to avoid:
- They shouldn’t say, “My [mom, sister, friend, co-worker] said you should…….” for anything.
- They shouldn’t make and leave messes.
- They shouldn’t entertain friends and family…..unless YOU want to. This can be for partners who are extroverts and like to socialize.
- They shouldn’t pass the baby around if this makes you uncomfortable. It’s very normal for a new mom to want to keep the baby to herself. You might be worried about getting the baby sick while they are very little and vulnerable. New parents are designed to want to keep the baby close and protected. That’s very natural and good! It’s also helpful for breastfeeding.
- They shouldn’t tell you they want to feed the baby, even if they do! I understand the desire. Partners might want to have that kind of bonding experience with the baby. They might think that’s the most important job and want to be part of helping. They might think they’re helping relieve some of your burden by offering. But for breastfeeding parents, that might cause extra stress. When the goal is successful breastfeeding, the easiest way to is to just let it happen as naturally as possible, and as the BABY directs. Having to worry about pumping and filling bottles or using formula might make it much harder. If you want this kind of help, ask for it.
How CAN partners bond with the baby?
There are so many ways to bond with the baby besides feeding. It’s really important to find the thing or things that work for your partner. Here are a few ideas:
- They can make diaper time theirs and make it fun with silly faces, tickling, massage, songs, etc. This will help them bond AND when babies grow up knowing that diaper changes are fun, they will make it easier for you instead of trying to get away!
- They can make bath time theirs and make it fun. See above.
- They can learn how to use a baby carrier and take the baby for snuggle walks every day.
- They can take a baby massage class and give the baby some daily massage time!
- They can hold the baby skin-to-skin anytime you need some alone time.
- If your partner is a musician, they can sing or play music to your baby. They might choose a special song just for your baby.
- They can read books to the baby. Even when the baby can’t understand yet, just hearing their voice is soothing. Later on, they will be able to understand and it will be fun in a whole new way.
- They can learn how to put your baby to sleep and be in charge of bedtime or naptime.
- They can get up early in the morning with your baby if you need more sleep. This is often a great bonding ritual.
As your baby grows, you will both figure out how to be great parents. It’s very normal for things to be a little weird and uncomfortable at first. Partners might be insecure about how they’re doing or feel like they’re having trouble bonding. This is normal too. After just a little time, they’ll start to make their own routines and feel a lot more confident. During this transition time, it’s important for the birth parent to allow your partner to help. This can be really hard for some people. You might want to do it all, or worry that they won’t be able to do things as well as you do. The problem with this is that they can never learn if they don’t start doing it!
Establishing routines and letting your partner participate will help everyone. They will gain confidence as a parent and understand that they are needed and important. You will start to appreciate the help and the time to take care of your own needs as well, especially as the baby gets older. A common problem that develops in relationships with new parents is that one parent takes control and doesn’t allow the partner to help. The partner might get resentful, and eventually might give up trying. Then the controlling parent becomes resentful that their partner never helps! You don’t want to get into this hard-to-break cycle.
Help your partner understand if this is very hard for you. You were responsible for the baby during pregnancy, and it can be hard to let go of all that responsibility. When they can understand your perspective, they can be gentle and not critical while they are adjusting. They can offer the help and support in whatever ways are easiest for you to accept. After a little time, you will be able to see that your partner is capable and helpful, and you will be able to let go a little more.
Below is a recorded interview with Dee Huerta, IBCLC at Breastfeeding Success specializing in inpatient hospital and NICU lactation support.