A new Canadian study has looked at the feelings about breastfeeding of highly involved fathers of babies exclusively breastfed to six months.
Francine de Montigny and colleagues at the University of Quebec in Canada interviewed 43 fathers for an hour each.
The majority of fathers did not consider breastfeeding to be an obstacle in creating a relationship with their baby. (This is backed up by other work by the same researchers that finds after 11 months fathers of babies breastfed for 6 months were no less involved than fathers of babies who had been bottlefed.)
The fathers did often, however, express awareness of the inequality between them and what one father described as the mother’s “privileged relationship with this human being you adore too”. But there were a variety of responses to this inequality.
Some felt they were “missing out”. One felt “pretty useless”. Others talked about the creation of a distance between them and the baby. One father said “I couldn’t do anything except provide moral support, but that had nothing to do with my child.”
Some made sense of this by describing the mother-baby relationship as “sacred” and expressed the belief that the father-child bond comes later in the baby’s life. Another father described the time he did have with the baby (while not feeding) as being “selfish”.
But in this sample of families strongly committed to breastfeeding, these feelings did not lead to a pressure to cease breastfeeding – one father talked about the distance as a necessary “sacrifice”.
Other fathers, however, reacted very differently, observing that feeding is not everything:
“He drinks about five times a day. Five times 15 minutes, that’s not a lot of time. If you want to take the rest of the time, you take it!” These fathers talked about changing nappies, carrying the baby, playing and cuddling. One father observed: “I’m not really sure she [the baby] really cares a lot about who is meeting her need, so long as the need is met.”
These involved fathers were prioritising an early bond with their baby and were already able to see it forming, even those working away from the home much of the day, judging by their baby’s strong recognition of them.
The fathers do see weaning as a special time, the opportunity to be involved in the feeding also. One described the creation of a “certain equality” between father and mother. And they spoke warmly of the experience of feeding: “it was one of the most beautiful moments of my life”. One father expressed pride at being able to bottlefeed the baby when the mother could not (a common phenomenon, since the mother is associated with the breast for the baby).
The researchers recommend that families are encouraged to support strong father-baby bonds from the outset, focusing on all the other elements of essential babycare that are not related to feeding. In this way the idea that breastfeeding is the only way to form a bond can be counteracted, with a consequent reduction in any sense of alienation.
Additional comment by the Family Included team
The study shows widely different levels of understanding about father-baby bonding among fathers and this seems to cause some confusion. Perhaps the support provided to families should include factual information about the biology of father-child bonding, so both mothers and fathers can see what is important and what does not need to be worried about.
One father clearly had a very good understanding of the nature of father-child attachment, which happens in parallel to mother-child attachment and does not depend on breastfeeding, nor on spending all day with the baby:
“In terms of my love and attachment to him, I don’t think it makes any difference . . . that he’s more often with his mother. . . . It’s more . . . unconditional and internal, and . . . I think that, as soon as he was born . . . there was a deep attachment. . . . Even if I’m less involved in his care, in the sense that . . . I’m not the one breastfeeding him,… that doesn’t make any difference in how attached I feel to him, and I’m sure it works both ways.”
Another father clearly perceived the instincts involved, which express themselves through innately driven hormonal and neurobiological changes that take place when a father cares for a baby:
“I didn’t create a relationship; there was already a relationship. I’m the father. I’m not creating anything. It’s my instinct, my love, that’s what it is. . . . So, I never tried to create anything. It was already there.”
de Montigny F, Larivière-Bastien D, Gervais C, St-Arneault K, Dubeau D & Devault A (2016), Fathers’ Perspectives on Their Relationship With Their Infant in the Context of Breastfeeding, Journal of Family Issues