A review of fathers’ views and experiences of breastfeeding, covering 20 papers, has observed a number of common themes:
Fathers very rarely choose to exert direct influence on breastfeeding that differs from what the mother wants.
“The man’s role is just to support and to be there.”
“I’d like to see her face if I walked I and said, you know, “I’ve decided.””
Instead, they tend to express support in terms of a support role – caring for other children or doing the housework, helping the mother directly to breastfeed without distraction, helping with feeding expressed milk if the other does that, providing emotional support particularly when things are tough. Sometimes fathers act as an advocate for breastfeeding, defending the family’s decision; in five of the studies, they advocated “breast is best”.
Nevertheless, without wanting to impose their opinions, other research has shown their actions and beliefs do influence the situation, even if they don’t say it. Concerns about breastfeeding in public or in front of family can be a factor. Some fathers can form a belief that breastfeeding is a barrier to their own relationship with the baby. Some (like the mothers themselves) are worried and distressed if the mother is struggling and may advocate stopping breastfeeding. Some are of the view that bottle feeding is a pragmatic response when breastfeeding is a struggle, or when work demands press on the mother.
Health promotion programmes rarely engage effectively with fathers, even though they generally want to be engaged. They seldom report receiving information directly from health professionals, seeking it rather in books, printed materials (leaflets, posters, etc.), the Internet and classes. They often learn about breastfeeding from their partners, who are generally better informed.
“The information was all aimed at my wife. What she could eat, do, experience, etc. I know she is the key player here but I felt that it was nothing to do with me. When we went to antenatal classes, they did a session on breastfeeding. They sent all the dads down the pub that night.”
Various of the studies show what fathers want: factual and specific information, particularly around what they can do to help the mother.
“A no bullshit idea of what to expect and how to help even if that means doing nothing but being there with her and the baby.”
The reviewers, Dr Sarah Earle from the Open University in UK, and Dr Robin Hadley, advocate the need to examine fathers’ attitudes also to other forms of infant feeding, such as bottle feeding and mixed feeding, in order to understand the dynamics better.
Earle S & Hadley R (2018), Men’s views and experiences of infant feeding: A qualitative systematic review, Maternal & Child Nutrition
Photo: Raphael Goetter. Creative Commons.