Breastfeeding is a Family Affair
To say that breastfeeding is a family affair is a bit of an oxymoron. After all, usually we think of breastfeeding as being a private exchange between mother and baby – how can the whole family be involved in breastfeeding?
Although only moms can physically breastfeed babies, the success of the breastfeeding experience depends significantly on the larger network of support around her. This includes the mom’s partner, other children, and family and friends. That support from a partner and/or family has a direct impact on the length of time that mothers will breastfeed, as well as the overall quality of the experience.
There is a lot that a family can do to form a cohesive partnership that benefits everyone. The very special bond that a mother has with her baby can be shared if everyone has a clear role and ways to feel connected. That “feeling” of being connected to the breastfeeding relationship is not imaginary or abstract. In fact, a partner can also feel the same feel-good hormones that a mother feels from breastfeeding.
In this article, the author discusses how grandparents can get a great deal of emotional and physical satisfaction in supporting the breastfeeding relationship. Grandparents often feel that with the arrival of that new baby, something very important has come into their lives – they have an added sense of purpose and meaning, and their skills and insights are valued. This helps to prevent loneliness and social isolation.
What are benefits of breastfeeding for the entire family, and why is it a family affair?
Family Becomes Closer to Each Other and the Baby
Every time a mom breastfeeds or pumps breastmilk, she produces oxytocin, the socializing drug that helps us bond with others. This helps the mother to feel closer to her baby – and to want to keep nursing and bonding with the baby. Partners should not feel left out just because they are not lactating; their body will produce oxytocin as they interact with their baby and especially if they foster skin-to-skin contact.
Research has shown that partners who have regular interaction with their baby will have the same level of oxytocin as the mother at both six weeks and six months after baby is born.
Many men are surprised to learn this, but it’s true: men’s bodies go through hormonal changes during their mate’s pregnancy that make them more docile, happy and calm. Research shows that a live-in father’s oxytocin levels will rise toward the end of the woman’s pregnancy, and when the father spends lots of time in close contact with the baby, these elevated oxytocin levels give him a natural push to be more actively involved in caring for the baby.
Higher oxytocin levels also help the father want to keep touching the mother – almost as if nature is causing men to be more nurturing during those crucial early months after a baby is born. Hormones don’t just help mothers adapt to their new role in feeding and nurturing a baby – they help fathers adapt to their new role and help the whole family bond and grow together.
When a man supports his spouse in her breastfeeding journey, it makes it more likely that she will keep breastfeeding, even when it gets tough. According to this research article, moms tend to feel better about breastfeeding when they feel like their partners are supporting them with encouraging words and active involvement. So if you can wake up in the night to feed the baby with a bottle of pumped breastmilk, or if you can support the mom by making breastfeeding sessions more easy and comfortable, this will all go a long way to help ensure that mom and baby enjoy a long and beneficial breastfeeding relationship.
How Family Members Can Help Make Breastfeeding a Family Affair
Here are some bonding tips for partners, family and friends when baby is breastfed full-time.
- Get actively involved in the baby’s care: Breastfeeding can be tiring, so take a few things off mom’s “to do” list. Change the baby’s diaper – try to give the mom a whole day free from diaper changes! Play games with the baby, read stories, sing songs, and otherwise help keep the baby occupied after feeding sessions.
- Make time for touch: Babies respond very well to skin-to-skin contact, as their little bodies and brains are developing and learning about the world, in part through sensory input from the sensation of touch. Give the baby a bath, followed by a gentle infant massage. Cuddle the naked baby on your bare chest (diaper optional). Carry the baby in a sling – many babies fall asleep easily with this method, and it is another way to give mom some extra free time!
- Share feeding responsibilities: If the baby will take a bottle, look for chances to help feed the baby with expressed breastmilk. Lots of dads and family members find that they love to sit with the baby and watch the baby feed from a bottle since it is a soothing, bonding experience. Remind mom that she is not alone and that breastfeeding is not solely “her job.” Get up in the middle of the night and see how to be of help or just to keep mom company. Some partners will take an evening (8pm) or late evening (11pm) feeding session so that mom can get some uninterrupted sleep or quiet time. For more information on pumping breastmilk, check out our articles on breast pumping basics and storing, freezing and re-heating breastmilk.
- Do cooking and housework: Constantly look for ways to help around the house. Breastfeeding is really the only childrearing job that can “only” be done by the mother – absolutely everything else is fair game! Prepare a snack or a meal she can eat while feeding the baby. Do chores such as laundry, cleaning the house or grocery shopping. Cook dinner while she’s breastfeeding. Rub her feet or give her a back massage. If there are other children, keep them happy and busy so mom can focus on breastfeeding (and bonding with) the baby.
- Get the older kids involved: Older siblings can take an active role in supporting the breastfeeding experience, especially if you give them specific tasks based on age.
Partners – Keep the Spark Alive
Spouses and partners, when you get home from work, you may be excited to see your baby and it is understandable that the first thing you want to do is hold him. Try to remember that you first fell in love with this woman who has spent the day looking after your baby. Let her know just how much you love her too.
With all the demands that the baby puts on you at this time, it is easy to lose sight of your relationship with your partner. Good communication is key to maintaining a healthy relationship. It will take a special effort, but it is worth making time for the two of you. Your baby is here because of your love for one another and you should celebrate that love even when time is tight.
Breastfeeding support can help make a family stronger. With a shared goal of making breastfeeding successful, the intimacy of a relationship stays energized. If tasks are shared, mom is not so tired. If mom knows that her spouse and family are supporting her, she’ll be less likely to feel alone or depressed. Ultimately, breastfeeding should not be “mom’s job” – it’s a joyful journey for the whole family that will hopefully bring you all closer together.