You make all the difference: a letter to the partner of a breastfeeding mum

Emma Pickett IBCLC is leading the breakout session on breastfeeding at Growing Families: Facts, Fiction and Other Stuff, our not-for-profit parenting event taking place in Manchester this October.  Emma is the Chair of the Association of Breastfeeding Mothers, and also works in private practice in North London.  In 2015, she published her book, “You’ve got it in you: a positive guide to breastfeeding” which is available in eBook and print version.  Here Emma explains just how important a supportive partner can be when a mum and baby are learning to breastfeed.

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Dear new/expectant parent,

I know everyone is talking about the person who is about to give birth.

It might feel like not much of the conversation is aimed at you – but I wanted to take a minute to talk about your role in this upcoming breastfeeding story.

You may not have the breasts (or perhaps you do and they are not going to be doing any lactating) but you cannot underestimate how important you are about to be in this next stage.

Breastfeeding works because of breasts and a baby. I would also say that it needs YOU to be there and to get how much you matter.

If your partner is struggling, it’s going to be hard to watch. You might wish you had some sort of magic wand that could make all this struggle go away. Your partner might even be in physical and emotional pain and you desperately wish you could fix it.

When you live in a society where many people choose to bottle feed, it can be difficult to understand why you wouldn’t just stop.

But you chose to breastfeed. Not just your partner. YOU. Your partner’s body also chose it. It was what she wanted. Maybe she looked at the research (you can see a lot of it here: http://www.unicef.org.uk/BabyFriendly/News-and-Research/Research/Breastfeeding-research—An-overview/) or maybe something more instinctual happened when she held her baby and experienced skin-to-skin and breastfeeding started.

If your partner is asking you to help her stop breastfeeding, then bottle feeding might be an answer.

But if it’s clear she DOES want breastfeeding to work, that’s where she needs your support to help it happen.

Imagine she wanted to run a marathon and it was something she felt passionately about. It was a decision that may take some commitment but her health will benefit in the short and long term and she will live with the sense of achievement for a lifetime. Imagine she was asking you for help and support and your answer was, “Yes, absolutely. How about I drive slowly behind you while you run and then if you get tired you can just pop in the car? Running is hard work and I’ll be there to help you out if you need it.”

Then on her tough runs, when she looks exhausted and seems to be struggling with her timing, you shout out the window: “You’ve tried really hard. Come on! There’s no shame in getting in the car now. Lots of people can’t run marathons. Don’t worry if you can’t manage it”

On the face of it, it might look like ‘help’ but anyone can see what a twit you are being. What would be really supportive would be rubbing her feet, linking her with people who can support her effectively, encouraging her and supporting her goals.

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What does real breastfeeding support look like:

  1. Learn about breastfeeding. Have a look on that UNICEF baby friendly site. Learn about why breastfeeding matters. Do some reading.

Your partner might be sore and emotional so if you can also be the well-informed one, you might be worth your weight in gold. The books about breastfeeding that you read when your partner is pregnant will matter more than the time spent painting a nursery. What are the good websites? What is normal for a newborn baby? How often do they normally feed and how can you tell that they are getting enough milk? What do the first few weeks often look like? What common problems can arise and what do people do about them?

 

  1. Be a gatekeeper and know when to keep people out.

The first few days are crucial when it comes to early breastfeeding success. It is up to YOU who visits, how long they stay for and how they can best support your partner. If just a tiny part of her is nervous about breastfeeding in front of a particular person, that might not be the person who needs to be sitting on your sofa in the first week. And if they care about you, they’ll get that. YOU ask people to only come for an hour, stay in a local B&B, have a Skype visit instead of a real one if you sense that’s what would be best for your partner.

What’s the story with her mum and your mum? Did they breastfeed? Do they understand why it matters to you? Do they understand that guidance has changed and we no longer expect babies to feed to a timed schedule (and we know that can even do some harm)? Perhaps the grandparents can read some books too (or at least something like this: http://abm.me.uk/breastfeeding-information/congratulations-youre-going-to-be-a-grandparent/)

 

  1. Be a gatekeeper in the other direction too.

Partners are champions at finding the right support when things aren’t going well and getting the right people through the door. They call helplines (when your partner is too upset but in the end you do manage to hand the phone over). They find the local breastfeeding support groups. They look for lactation consultants (IBCLCs) on lcgb.org and contact the local peer supporters. This is information you can get lined up before baby is even here. Do you know which local groups welcome partners to attend? What days are they on? When your partner is struggling, you might be the one who approaches midwives on the ward or phones the community midwife service and asks what feeding support is available.

 

  1. Know that you don’t need to feed your baby to bond.

Your new relationship with your baby will be about oxytocin and cuddling and skin-to-skin contact. Anyone that tells you that a partner needs to give a bottle to develop a relationship with their baby is talking baloney. Giving a bottle is not a time without stress – you might be worried about getting it right, a breastfeeding baby might be missing out on some of the aspects of breastfeeding and confused about latch and flow, a baby is more likely to take in air, your partner has to worry about protecting her supply. These are not the ingredients for  some blissful magical experience.

There might be times when it’s really useful for you to feed your baby (especially after the first few weeks when breastfeeding is established) but I can promise you that ‘in order to bond’ is not one of the common uses.

The most magic time is the skin-to-skin cuddle. That produces the oxytocin hormone in you and baby – the hormone that facilitates bonding. Smell your baby, hold them, say hello. Enjoy your new relationship. You have a life-time ahead of you of warming up fish fingers, making sandwiches for school and taking them for special dinners. Right now, you don’t need to do the feeding. You just need to help the feeding to happen. When things are difficult, talk to your partner about what she really wants. If she had a magic wand, what would she wish for? How can you help that to happen?

 

Those of us who support mums who want to breastfeed get how important you are. You are often the person who opens the front door for us and we can see it written on your face – this is a household where everyone is working towards the same goal. You are working as a team. Breastfeeding success is not just about a mum and her baby. It’s about all of us. You are crucial.

 

Further reading:

http://abm.me.uk/breastfeeding-information/dads-and-breastfeeding/

 

Emma Pickett IBCLC
September 2016

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