Some kinds of support by fathers for breastfeeding may be counter-productive (Canada)


A new study has looked at what kind of support by fathers for breastfeeding works best in relation to extending its duration. Earlier research has shown that mothers breastfeed longer when the fathers strongly believe in breastfeeding, but in this study, the researchers unexpectedly found that some kinds of support by fathers correlate with a shorter period of breastfeeding. They achieved a key insight into what kind of support works best.

The Canadian two-study research led by Lynn & John Rempel looked at well-educated Canadian mothers (144) and fathers (106), with 97 of each being couples.

Based on earlier research, they defined five types of support and measured them through questionnaires for both the mothers and the fathers. The five types of support were “breastfeeding savvy”, “helping”, “appreciation”, “presence” and “responsiveness” – the questions asked about each were as follows.

  1. Breastfeeding SAVVY
  • Discuss or negotiate with your partner about how long to continue breastfeeding.
  • Discuss with your partner ideas for trying to solve breastfeeding problems or make suggestions for creative or different ways to make
  • breastfeeding work better.
  • Learn more about breastfeeding by reading books or articles on breastfeeding.
  • Tell your partner your opinion about how long you think that she should breastfeed.
  • Speak up in support of your partner or defend breastfeeding when someone makes a negative breastfeeding comment.
  • Help your partner get assistance from others for solving breastfeeding problems or improving breastfeeding.
  • Remind your partner of the benefits that breastfeeding has for her or for your baby.
  • Show patience and a willingness to wait for your opportunity to feed the baby.
  • Support your partner’s attendance at a breastfeeding support group.
  • Help out with or take care of other childcare tasks with the baby.
  • Give something up in order to make breastfeeding easier.
  • Help out with other household tasks and responsibilities to free up your partner’s time and energy.
  • Help out with breastfeeding at night.
  • Care for your baby during and after breastfeeding is done.
  • Try to improve your partner’s health and nutrition.
  • Give your partner a break from the baby.
  • Encourage your partner to do her beast when it comes to breastfeeding and let her know that she is not less of a mother if she feels like quitting.
  • Praise your partner for breastfeeding and let her know that what she is doing is a beautiful, worthwhile thing.
  • Let your partner know that breastfeeding is natural and/or give her the message that she is breastfeeding because she wants the best for her baby.
  • Listen to and encourage your partner when she is feeling frustrated or discouraged about breastfeeding.
  • Show appreciation that your partner is breastfeeding.
  • Tell your partner that you value and support her mothering decisions and intuitions around breastfeeding.
  1. Breastfeeding PRESENCE
  • Try to improve the breastfeeding experience by getting equipment or supplies ready for breastfeeding.
  • Act attentively towards your partner during breastfeeding.
  • Quietly share time and watch or hold your partner during breastfeeding.
  • Physically help with breastfeeding related activities.
  • Help create a quiet, pleasant environment for breastfeeding.
  • Show pleasure and satisfaction while your partner is breastfeeding.
  • Make it easy for your partner to breastfeed while entertaining company or visiting others.
  • Respond sensitively and positively to sexual issues.
  • Be patient and understanding of the time it takes to breastfeed and don’t get upset if the other housework is not done.
  • Show your comfort with breastfeeding in public and help her feel comfortable too.
  • Pay attention to how much and how your partner wants you to participate in breastfeeding.

In the first study they found that when mothers rated the father’s ‘presence’ and ‘responsiveness’ highly, they were more likely to express satisfaction with breastfeeding. And mothers expressing more satisfaction were more likely to want to breastfeed for longer.

However when fathers support longer breastfeeding and when they are savvy, appreciative and present, mothers’ duration intention is likely to be less. When fathers prefer shorter breastfeeding and are savvy and appreciative mothers’ duration intention was longer.

In the second study, they found that the only type of support that predicts longer breastfeeding is responsiveness, as rated by both fathers and mothers. The other types of support actually predict a shorter duration of breastfeeding.

One possibility is that fathers are more supportive when mothers are having more difficulty with breastfeeding – hence a correlation between more support and shorter breastfeeding.

Another possibility is that some forms of support actually undermine the mother’s sense of self-efficacy and autonomy. There is a body of literature about care in general that suggests support that is more invisible, non-directive and not given if the recipient does not need or want it, is more effective in achieving healthy behaviours.

The ‘responsive’ type of care is the only one that predicts longer breastfeeding and is the kind that is least invasive – it includes “paying attention to how much and how your partners wants you to participate in breastfeeding”.

Lynn & John Rempel conclude their report by proposing that the best type of breastfeeding support may be “teamwork”, which is characterised by responsiveness:

“Although the implications of our studies must be considered tentative, given our comparatively small sample sizes, the results are consistent with the idea that effective breastfeeding support is more likely to occur when couples work together as a ‘breastfeeding team’…. Each partner can then be ready to assist if the other needs help and stay out of the way when the partner has everything under control.”


Rempel LA, Rempel JK & Moore KCJ (2016), Relationships between types of father breastfeeding support and breastfeeding outcomes, Maternal & Child Nutrition

Photo: Joe Yang. Creative Commons.