How to Support Your Partner Who Breast Feeds

By Mathew Miller, Sharon Perkins

If your partner decides to breast-feed, you may be breathing a sigh of relief that the nighttime duties won’t fall to you, but not so fast! Breast-fed babies usually eat more frequently than bottle-fed babies because they digest breast milk more easily.

If you’re co-sleeping or even if the baby is across the room, you’ll probably be awake at 12 a.m., 3 a.m., and 6 a.m., too.

Even if you normally sleep like the dead and wouldn’t wake up if the Titanic floated through your bedroom, getting up and offering support for at least one of the night feedings can be a wonderful contribution to your partner and make you feel closer to your baby.

Get your partner a drink, help her get into a comfortable position, and talk to her if she wants conversation. Late-night talks are conducive to confidences and discussions you may not have time for during the day.

If you’re working full-time, getting up in the night is hard but worth it. Getting to know your new little person and your partner better is worth the sacrifice, and this time too shall pass, faster than you can imagine.

How dads can help get breast-feeding started

Although breast-feeding seems like it should be easy and natural, it isn’t always. Many women today have no role models for breast-feeding; their moms may not have breast-fed, their friends may not be doing it, and you’re not much help, either.

Most hospitals have lactation consultants to help new moms get started breast-feeding. Some also offer at-home visits if needed. If you have a doula, she’ll be invaluable in helping with issues that arise.

With all that said, it does help to know about the most common breast-feeding problems:

  • Latch-on problems: Women with large or flat nipples often have a difficult time getting the baby to latch on. This is frustrating for mom and baby alike and often ends with both in tears. If the baby isn’t properly latched, he won’t get enough milk. A baby who doesn’t latch on well can also cause bleeding, cracked, and painful nipples.

    Patience can often conquer latch-on problems. Sometimes, though, additional assistance from a nipple shield is necessary. A nipple shield fits over mom’s nipple to give the baby something to grasp onto if her nipples are very flat.

  • Parental anxiety: Many new parents are obsessed with their baby’s weight. Breast-feeding can frustrate parents who want to know how much milk the baby is getting at each feeding. However, you can still measure his intake if you have a baby scale and really have to know; just weigh the baby before and after a feeding and compare.

    Don’t change his clothes — not even his diaper — or the weight won’t be accurate. A baby scale can save the sanity of weight-obsessed parents. But if your baby is producing wet diapers six to eight times a day, along with a poopy diaper at least every other day, he’s most likely getting enough.

  • Supply issues: Most women have ample milk supply starting around the third day after delivery, but some need supplements to increase milk supply. Drinking plenty of fluids, getting enough rest, and taking herbs such as fenugreek can help increase supply. (Talk to a lactation consultant first about doses, benefits, and drawbacks.)

    Before a good milk supply is established, supplementing the baby’s diet with formula or pumping rather than nursing is discouraged, because sucking increases the supply. Pumping isn’t as effective as a baby’s suck at stimulating milk supply. Breast milk is the original supply-and-demand system.

Explanation of supplemental bottles for dads

After your partner’s milk supply is well established, you can give baby supplemental bottles of formula or pumped breast milk. Bottle-feeding is a nice way for you to feed and bond with the baby occasionally, and it gives your partner a chance to get out of the house or actually take an uninterrupted shower.

Decreasing the number of nursing times a day reduces the milk supply, though, so don’t overdo the supplemental bottles. Most likely mom will still have to pump and save the milk for a later feeding.

Don’t be surprised if the baby doesn’t quite understand what to do with the bottle at first. Bottle-feeding and breast-feeding require completely different tongue positioning and techniques on the baby’s part. Some babies refuse supplemental bottles, which can be a problem if your partner gets sick or for some reason can’t breast-feed.

Although you can feed a recalcitrant breast-feeder with an eyedropper, the process certainly isn’t fun for either of you. Some medical practitioners recommend an occasional supplemental bottle after nursing is well established so the baby gets used to taking an occasional bottle. Check with your pediatrician.

Many dads are a little envious of the closeness of the breast-feeding relationship and enjoy skin-to-skin contact while they feed the baby. Others find this just too weird. Whichever camp you’re in, supplemental bottles can give you time to study your baby’s face in detail and revel in the miracle you’ve created.

Basics of breast pumps

Pumping to fill a supplemental bottle or if your partner goes back to work is easier than it used to be. Your partner can use an electric pump that’s more efficient than the old bicycle horn–type pumps. A really good pump can be really pricey but is worth it if your partner is going to use it a lot.

Insurance will reimburse the cost of renting or buying a pump under the Affordable Care Act. Pumping is nowhere near as efficient as nursing is, so the amount produced may be much less than you think it should be. This difference is normal and not a sign that the baby isn’t getting enough milk.