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A Family Affair: Getting Dad Involved

Written by Ted Greiner, Ph.D.   
Wednesday, 01 June 2005 00:00
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What is the father’s role in breastfeeding?

This article will combine a review of what has been found in the literature about the role of fathers in breastfeeding with ponderings and ideas based on the author’s own experiences both as a father and as a trained father-group leader in Sweden on involving fathers more in infant feeding.

Even in cultures where most fathers have little interest in or knowledge about breastfeeding, they and the maternal mothers may often have a great deal of power over how mothers feed their babies. Studies in Taiwan, Australia, Canada, England, Scotland, Israel, Spain, Brazil, Sweden and PA, NY, MD, MO, GA, in the USA suggest that a father’s approval of breastfeeding (or the mother’s perception of this) is associated with greater breastfeeding success. In one study in OH, USA, strong approval of breastfeeding by the father was associated with 98% breastfeeding incidence, compared to only 26.9 when the father was indifferent to feeding choice.

Getting Dad InvolvedIn many of these studies, others’ opinions were not found to have any influence. And I have not come across studies where the opposite is true— that others’ opinions had an impact but fathers’ did not. In one study, pregnant women were asked whose opinion mattered the most regarding feeding their infants and 79% said “baby’s father” compared to 21% “maternal mother.”

One review suggested that fathers influence the following four aspects: the breastfeeding decision, assistance at first feeding, duration of breastfeeding, and risk factors for bottle feeding.

In one study in TX, USA, compared with fathers whose partner planned to bottle feed, fathers whose partners planned to breast feed were less likely to think that breastfeeding is bad for breasts (52% vs 22%), makes breasts ugly (44% vs 23), and interferes with sex (72% vs 24%). Yet surprisingly mothers’ predictions were little more accurate than random guessing in predicting their partner’s response to attitude questions about breastfeeding.

Most studies find that although fathers of breast-fed babies know more about breastfeeding and have more positive attitudes toward it than other fathers, their level of knowledge is still low. Presumably, fathers’ knowledge and attitudes could be improved and they could play a more positive role, though few documented efforts have been made so far to do so.

Can we create a new norm regarding the father’s role in infant feeding—before the infant formula companies succeed in doing so? One small study in the UK found that “One of the most significant factors influencing the decision to bottle feed appears to be a desire for paternal involvement.” In Sweden I am attempting to promote the idea that the father’s role after six months of exclusive breastfeeding could be “chief solid feeder.” From the very beginning, Dad can act as a “kangaroo,” as his body is just as good as an incubator at maintaining infant body temperature.