We have just discovered the advice on engaging fathers in breastfeeding by Alive and Thrive back in October 2012, following work in Ethiopia and Viet Nam: Dads can do that! Strategies to involve fathers in child feeding. In our view, the quality of this document is exceptionally good – it presents a method that is not just relevant to breastfeeding, but to all engagement of fathers in maternal and newborn health.
The method proposed by Alive and Thrive starts by stating the foundation for engaging with fathers in feeding: they have influence on decision-making, they are willing to do the right thing if they know what it is, they are easy to reach. The first step, as in all work with fathers, is to find out about fathers by asking them: how do they exert influence, what are their aspirations, how they can be reached?
The report then presents six strategies.
- Grab fathers with positive emotions, for example, using music and images.
- Ease the way by busting stereotypes – cultural norms are surprisingly vulnerable to some humour and surprising facts about the reality of human biology and behaviour.
- Find fathers where they already are. It is much easier to reach men this way than attempt to bring them into an unfamiliar space where they may not feel comfortable.
- Provide crystal clear guidance about what fathers can do – and these things must be things fathers are able and willing to do based on discussions with them.
- Give fathers practice so they can gain confidence.
- Show fathers a benefit that they care about. They key to this is understanding that fathers care about their babies – how does their role in supporting breastfeeding help their baby?
It is interesting how this advice has not travelled within the breastfeeding sector. At the Women Deliver conference in Copenhagen in May 2016, UNICEF and WHO issued an advocacy brief, Breastfeeding and Gender Equality (not published on-line). This document showed none of the insight achieved by Alive and Thrive:
- it is negative: the lack of support from fathers is referred to as a barrier to breastfeeding, without saying that active support from fathers is a facilitator;
- it gives advice that does not link to men’s aspirations: to support breastfeeding they should do the housework and campaign for breastfeeding publicly.
The calls to action by UNICEF and WHO omit any reference to engaging family members in breastfeeding, despite the evidence that family attitudes are a key influence on breastfeeding rates.
Photo: “Daddy’s hand” by paxye. Creative Commons.