How to Support Your Breastfeeding Partner
Having a new baby is challenging, wonderful and overwhelming.
In many cultures, it is traditional that giving birth is followed by a period of confinement where the woman rests in bed nursing her baby while other relatives take care of everything else. The period of confinement varies in different cultures but is often for more than a month. For example, in Latin American countries, this is traditionally called the cuarantena and lasts 40 days. Historically, this was also part of European culture called lying-in.
However, in modern-day Western cultures, somehow we have a situation where a woman gets discharged after a few hours in hospital and is put under pressure to get back to normal life, look after the small baby, do the washing-up and get her figure back as soon as possible.
This is a practical guide on how to be as supportive a partner as you can. As well as following this, remember to look after yourself and your mental and physical health, too.
1. Remember That Everyone is Different
What works for one mother or baby does not work for others.
Some women find breastfeeding easy; others find it hard, and a very small minority may find it impossible. For most, it is a skill they have to learn.
If your mother, sister, the next door neighbour's sister you bump into on the bus, etc., offers advice, just remember it might not actually be good advice. Even health professionals offer different advice, and unfortunately sometimes their advice is not good advice, either. Or it may be good advice that works for some women, but not others.
2. Take Whatever Paternity/Shared Leave You Can
If you can get the time off work to be there to support your partner, take it. Don't be bullied into going to work by your employer. If you need to go back to work, try to make sure there is someone else around to support and help your partner if possible. Although, obviously, make sure you ask your partner what they think before you invite your mother over!
3. Forget About Sharing the Feeding
There is this idea floating around that it is nice and bonding for the father/other partner to share the experience of feeding the baby, usually with a bottle of expressed milk in the evening. I don't think this is the best idea because:
- Your breastfeeding partner has the breasts; it's easier for her to just to do the feeding.
- The effort involved in expressing the milk outweighs any rest mum might get while dad gives the bottle. Also, not everyone feels this way, but I am not alone in hating the feeling of expressing milk—it makes me feel like a cow.
- There are plenty of lovely ways to bond with your baby that don't involve feeding.
I'm not saying not to do this under any circumstance; if both you and your partner want to express milk and it works for you, then fair enough. Just remember it is nonsense that giving a bottle is necessary for fatherly bonding.
Some mums find expressing a useful way to get a break. Mums I know have expressed milk so that they can go to the hairdresser, a concert, a birthday celebration, or just have a bit of alone time to remember who they are without a baby!
It is recommended mums don't start expressing until they have properly established and settled into breastfeeding, which will usually take about 6 weeks. (There are some exceptions to this; for example, it may be advised if you need to increase supply.)
4. Provide Food and Drink Top-ups
The official guidance tells you a breastfed baby should be fed at least 8–12 times in 24 hours, which sounds like a lot. However, in reality, sometimes a baby wants to be fed mostly continuously all the time without any real break, especially in the evening and night times. This is called cluster feeding and is normal.
If your partner is in the midst of cluster feeding, then you can support her by:
- Bringing her water/juice/tea and making sure she is topped up with fluids. It is easy to get dehydrated in the early days of breastfeeding. Your partner may not have any free hands, so a straw and/or bottle with a lid will be most useful. Also make sure any tea has cooled down a bit before it goes near the baby.
- Bringing snacks and food. If you are cooking food, it is easiest if it in small pieces. For example, rather than serving a whole chicken breast, chop it up. Your partner may only have one free hand to eat with. In desperate situations (if she has no hands available), she might appreciate you guiding the food to her mouth.
- Handing your partner whatever she needs which is out of reach—for example, her phone, the water bottle, the television remote, whatever she needs.
Basically, act as your partner's personal servant for a few days. Remember it will get better (but probably not for a few weeks).
5. Do the Nappy Changes
For the first few weeks of my baby's life, my partner did 90 percent of our baby's nappy changes. This was very helpful, and it can be a good opportunity to bond with your baby. Don't worry, breastfed baby poo is not disgusting and the smell is nothing like as bad as grown-up human poo.
6. Do the Housework
For the first few weeks after the baby is born, take responsibility for the housework if you can. Carrying a baby and giving birth is a tiring experience, so let your partner focus on the baby for the first few weeks if possible. Usually, if someone has a stay in hospital or surgery, they are expected to take time to recover and heal from it, including a lot of sleep. But a woman who has given birth is immediately expected to look after the baby, after very little sleep, a long labour and sometimes surgery.
If you have high standards of housework, it is fine to let them slide for a few weeks, too. Just keep on top of whatever the minimum is. Rope in family and friends if possible. You could even consider paying someone to do the cleaning.
7. Understand How Your Baby Sleeps
Babies are all different, but the following is what is normal for a newborn:
- Your baby will not sleep through the night.
- Your baby will not sleep to a pattern, and he is likely to wake up every 1–2 hours.
It is unlikely your baby will want to sleep in his crib/moses basket/bassinet or whatever designated sleeping space you have lovingly prepared for him. He will want to sleep on someone's nice warm body. If baby is not sleeping when put down, offer to take the baby on your chest for a bit after a feed so mum can get some sleep. This is another nice way to bond with your baby.
It is likely that your baby's favourite place to sleep will be next to his mother's nipple. This is instinctively where your baby will feel most secure. Many breastfeeding mothers end up sharing a bed with their baby, because it is what comes naturally and the way they get most sleep. Bedsharing is a controversial topic; for guidance, see Safe Co-sleeping Guidelines or Baby Sleep Info Source.
One option that helped some of my friends is for dad to move to the spare room. My partner never did, but if you have a job where it is important you are properly rested, it might be a good idea after your paternity leave is over.
8. Be Understanding of Emotions
If your partner starts weeping uncontrollably for no good reason a few days after giving birth, then it's normal. This is what health professionals call the "baby blues" (I don't think this is a helpful name) and is due to hormones. It will usually pass after a few days. If it doesn't pass, encourage your partner to speak to her midwife or doctor.
9. Respect Your Partner's Body Changes
Its normal for your partner to bleed for several weeks after giving birth. She may also have stitches or tears from the birth, or scars if she had a C-section. Don't expect sex. It is likely she will not want you anywhere near her for a while. (Although, as mentioned above, everyone is different).
Breastfeeding is apparently a form of contraception, but it doesn't always work.
10. Know That There's Not an Easy Alternative to Breastfeeding
Breastfeeding can be hard. It shouldn't hurt—if it does, encourage your partner to seek advice.
However, there is no easy alternative to breastfeeding. A lot of people talk about switching to formula as if it is the easy option, but it is not. Formula feeding means increased health risks for the baby and mother. It is also a lot more work as you have to buy the formula and get up and prepare bottles in the middle of the night. It is also a myth that formula feeding means you get more sleep; scientific studies suggest that breastfeeding parents get more sleep.
However, there are some women who really struggle with breastfeeding. In some cases, women struggle because they need support from someone qualified and the problems can be overcome. You may be able to help by identifying what support is available in your area; this might be support from midwives, doctors or health visitors, breastfeeding clinics, breastfeeding support groups, breastfeeding helplines or a qualified lactation consultant. If you are looking for reliable evidence-based advice on the web, Kellymom is one of the best sites.
However, bear in mind there are cases where formula or supplementing breastfeeding with formula is the best or only option in the circumstances. Your partner's mental health is important, and problems with breastfeeding when you really want to do it are very stressful. One of my friends who couldn't breastfeed told me she felt like she had failed as a woman. So try and be as supportive as you can, however well breastfeeding goes. Tell your partner what a good mum she is.
For the fact that breastfeeding parents get more, sleep see:
Doan T; Gay CL; Kennedy HP; Newman J; Lee KA. Nighttime breastfeeding behavior is associated with more nocturnal sleep among first-time mothers at one month postpartum.
The guidelines I mention for how much babies should feed and when to start expressing come from the NHS:
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.