Research from USA finds that, around feeding of their infant, mothers tend to lead but fathers become increasingly engaged and autonomous as the child grows older. The study also found that when two parents share responsibilities for feeding, they can favour different approaches. Coparenting involves collaboration between two different individuals.
The researchers recommend that health services supporting families around nutrition should engage with both mothers and fathers and also with grandparents if they are highly involved in caring. Engaging with one carer may not be enough.
The qualitative study, involving interviews with 24 couples in the rural Midwest of the USA, asked about three stages.
- Breastfeeding, 0-6 months. The mothers tend to make the main decision regarding breastfeeding / bottle feeding and fathers tend to support what the mother decides. Some mothers used breastpumps, described by the couples as necessary to allow the mother to work with the added benefit of giving the father an additional feeding opportunity.
- Transition to milk-based diet and introduction of solid foods, 6-12 months. Fathers still tend to fall in line and support the choice of the mother, but disagreements can emerge over the right time to stop breastfeeding. Some fathers want breastfeeding to continue for longer than the mother does. Others want it to stop earlier than she does, particularly if the mother is struggling or the baby is very hungry. Disagreements can be quite strong if the situation is challenging.
- Solid food, 12 months onwards. Fathers are more active at this stage – planning meals, shopping and preparing food. Disagreements can emerge, for example around the need for a healthy diet versus the desirability of less healthy treats. Most parents described these differences in a light-hearted way, but in one case these disagreements triggered bigger tensions in the parental relationship.
Earlier research has shown that parenting influences infant diet – both parenting practices directly related to feeding and more general aspects of parenting, such as behaviour control, nurturing and structure. One study found that the association between more positive parenting feeding practices and healthier child dietary behaviours were stronger when general parenting was more structured.
Very few studies have looked at coparenting around infant feeding – how parents collaborate around infant feeding. This study was unusual because it interviewed couples together. Most studies focus on mothers and a few look at the influence of fathers.
Thullen M, Majee W & Davis AN (2016), Co-parenting and feeding in early childhood: reflections of parent dyads on how they manage the development stages of feeding over the first three years, Appetite 105
Majee W, Thullen MJ, Davis AN & Sethi TK (2017), Influences on infant feeding: perceptions of mother-father parent dyads, The American Journal of Maternal/Child Nursing 42.5