The importance of partner support
Breastfeeding happens more easily when the people closest to the breastfeeding mother support her. She needs information, rest, time to learn and her own needs cared for. Most of all, she needs the emotional support and commitment from the people closest to her, especially her partner. The more her partner knows about breastfeeding and is willing to help and encourage her, the more likely she will breastfeed successfully.1, 2
Supporting your breastfeeding partner
A new baby in your family brings new challenges. Many couples today have little to do with young babies before they have their own. Being prepared for the physical and emotional demands of caring for your baby is important. Even if you have a good idea of what to expect, sometimes there is still a steep learning curve with your new baby. A strong relationship with your partner can help as your new baby needs so much attention and energy.
A new baby is a 24-hour-a day, 7-day-a week job. Being always on call, with interrupted sleep, may make your partner very tired. She may feel exhausted and less confident. It can take time for both parents to adjust to the lifestyle changes a new baby brings. Friends or family who have been through the early weeks of parenting can be a good source of support. You could also talk through your breastfeeding concerns with an Australian Breastfeeding Association (ABA) breastfeeding counsellor by calling the 24-hour national Breastfeeding Helpline, on 1800 686 268. This service is available for everyone involved with breastfeeding. You can also attend, and encourage your partner to attend, a local ABA support group where you will be able to chat with a breastfeeding counsellor face-to-face and meet with other parents and their child(ren).
Being there for your breastfeeding partner as she learns to breastfeed will help you both share the role of caring for your baby. Together, you will both become more confident. It will also feel good to support your partner to nurture your baby.
There are many ways you can help to support your breastfeeding partner and care for your new baby:
Before your baby is born
- Get as much information as you can about breastfeeding.3 The breastfeeding information section on the ABA website, breastfeeding.asn.au has a great deal of up-to-date information about breastfeeding. It includes commonly asked questions, breastfeeding challenges, practical strategies, helpful suggestions and much more.
- Attend a breastfeeding education class (BEC), before your baby arrives. Learn as much as you can about breastfeeding, what to expect in the first weeks, how to help with any breastfeeding difficulties and what to do if you have any questions about breastfeeding. Attending these classes with your partner is important and gives you both a chance to build your knowledge about breastfeeding. There is plenty of time for discussion and questions.
- By attending a breastfeeding education class, you receive automatic membership to the ABA and so become connected with a caring and supportive network.
- Understand the importance of breastfeeding. Breastfeeding is the normal way to feed babies. Learn about the short and long-term risks for both mothers and babies if they do not breastfeed.
- Work together to make a Breastfeeding Plan and talk to your health care providers about it. Speak up and make sure staff respect and support these decisions. It's important they understand that even if your breastfeeding partner is feeling tired and vulnerable, you will be able to provide clear direction about how you would both like your baby fed and cared for at delivery and while you are in hospital after the birth.2 You can ask that she and your baby stay together around the clock so that she can breastfeed exclusively. Spending lots of time skin-to-skin will help them learn together to breastfeed.
- Find your local health care resources. Keep the contact details of your local child health centre and the national Breastfeeding Helpline handy (eg in your mobile), in case you need them after your baby arrives. Find out where to get the information and support you need to make good decisions (such as your local ABA support group).
- Encourage and support your breastfeeding partner when she talks to family and friends about the decision to breastfeed. Help them understand why it is important to your family. It will show your breastfeeding partner that you too want your baby to have the best possible start with breastfeeding and help create an environment where your partner feels secure and supported.
After your baby is born
- Your breastfeeding partner needs lots of support as she learns to breastfeed. The early days and weeks with a new baby can be very challenging. Sometimes it can be difficult to adjust and may become overwhelming at times. The days may blur into each other and it may feel as if nothing is getting done. Encourage your partner just to do her best and remember to tell her you think she is doing a great job and how proud of her you are. Appreciate the effort involved and help her recognise what she is achieving.2
- Obtain membership to the ABA. As a member, you can receive expert assistance from trained volunteer breastfeeding cousellors, friendship and practical support from other mothers, and a host of savings.
- Make the time to listen to your partner and provide moral support. Sharing ideas and thoughts can help you both put things in perspective. Sometimes it will be you who remembers an important bit of breastfeeding information when it is most needed, or look it up on the spot. Don't forget you can dial the national Breastfeeding Helpline or attend a local ABA support group and get support.
- Parents are often given conflicting information. Everyone has different ways of doing things. You may need to try several options before you find what works best for your family. Remember that your baby and your family are unique. You don’t have to do what your friends or family members do.
- When will we have sex again? Changes that occur in a woman’s body during pregnancy and the birth can make some women lose interest in sex for a while. This can happen whether a woman is breastfeeding or not. Some women won't want sex because of soreness, vaginal dryness or extreme tiredness. Some women say that the emotional and physical effort of looking after a baby makes them feel 'all touched out' by the end of a day. A woman needs her partner to be patient and sensitive as she recovers and gains confidence as a mother. Sharing the care of your new baby is a loving act too. For further information see our booklet Breastfeeding: diet, exercise, sex and more.
- Birth Control. Breastfeeding delays the return of a woman's periods and is the basis of one type of birth control (called the Lactational Amenorrhoea Method). There are other contraceptive options available. A talk with your medical adviser is a good idea to help you choose the method that's best for you both.
If something doesn’t seem right
Breastfeeding is natural but it doesn’t always ‘just happen’. Sometimes babies learn quickly, others take a little longer. Learning how breastfeeding works can help prevent problems. Having good information when you need it can help turn things around.
Make yourself aware of common breastfeeding difficulties and what to do about them. Knowing about some of the things that can go wrong will help you recognise any issues early. This can make them easier to manage. If you need more information or support, get it right away, from your local child health centre, a medical adviser, or from the national Breastfeeding Helpline.
Encourage your breastfeeding partner to continue if she is having a hard day. On days like this she may find it hard to think straight. Sometimes just knowing that what she is facing is normal can be enough to encourage her to continue breastfeeding. Sometimes just listening to your partner can be great support. A little more information may make a big difference to how she feels.
The ABA can provide breastfeeding information through the website, telephone helpline, or email counselling. Encourage her to go to the local ABA support group. They are friendly, welcoming places to share experiences and support and learn from each other. Partners are welcome too.
Special situations will require additional help from hospital and medical professionals who will provide specialised information and support. The ABA can provide breastfeeding support. Medical research shows breastmilk is important for pre-term babies, special needs babies and multiple births, as it is for all babies.4
Postnatal and paternal depression
Postnatal and paternal depression are not uncommon after the birth of a baby and are more easily treated if recognised early. Consider this as a possibility if either of you have feelings of sadness or anxiety which appear, either suddenly or gradually, last for more than 2 weeks and affect your ability to function. Be aware of the symptoms. If you are concerned, talk to a medical adviser, or the Post and Antenatal Depression Association, 1300 726 306. Don't be embarrassed to ask for help. A new baby can be an emotional time for any new parent.
Practical support at home
- Do as much as you can at home. If you can, take some leave from work in the early weeks. It will be a great help if you can help with making meals, doing the laundry and basic cleaning in the early weeks. This can help your breastfeeding partner rest and recover from the birth. She will have more energy to learn to breastfeed and care for your baby.
- Care for her by looking after her personal needs. Does she need a drink or something healthy to eat? An extra pillow to make her comfortable? Look after your baby while she has a shower or a sleep? When she is ready, go for a walk or an outing together with the baby — a change of scenery, even if it’s only a stroll around the block, can help her relax and get things back in perspective. Accept offers of help from family and friends. Talk to each other about how you are feeling. Be patient as you both learn about your baby and gradually feel more confident in caring for your baby.
- Care for your baby. Some partners feel that they are missing out because breastfeeding is such an important part of a baby’s life and they can’t do it. But partners can show them that parents show love in a different ways. Cuddle your baby close to you with as much skin-to-skin contact as possible. An unhappy, crying baby can settle with you just as well as they can with your partner. Carry your baby (eg in a sling or baby carrier), change his nappies, bath and massage him and settle him after a feed. Talk to your baby. Take your baby for a ride in the pram or the car. Relax and be calm with him and you will give your partner a much needed break. Importantly you will get to know your baby and your baby will get to know you.
Need to know more?
New parents often have questions. If you need more information than you’ve found here, talk to family and friends, local health professionals, explore the breastfeeding information section on the ABA website, or get in touch with local support groups who can help with your situation.
Also see the Especially for partners article on this website.
As one mother of twins says: "Without my hubby's unwavering support, there is no way I would still be feeding my twins at 15 months! He never once, during all the madness and sleepless nights, suggested we feed any other way. He took over basically all meals and feeding me was his way of feeding the babies. We had discussed during pregnancy how important it was to us that the twins be exclusively BF and that it would be my full time job for quite a few months. He picked up soooo much of the slack in caring for our older child and for our home. Could not have done it without him."
Breastfeeding: supporting the new mother booklet
Breastfeeding: Supporting the new mother uses up-to-date information about breastfeeding and infant behaviour to help you provide practical support to a new mother.
1. Rempel LA, Rempel JK 2011, The breastfeeding team: the role of involved fathers in the breastfeeding family. Journal of Human Lactation 27(2):115–121, 187–189.
2. Tohotoa J, Maycock B, Hauck YL, Howat P, Burns S, Binns CW 2009, Dads make a difference: an exploratory study of paternal support for breastfeeding Perth, Western Australia. International Breastfeeding Journal 4:15.
3. Giugliani ER, Bronner Y, Caiaffa W, Vogelhuy J, Witter FR, Perman JA 1994, Are fathers prepared to encourage their partners to breast feed? A study about fathers' knowledge of breast feeding. Acta Paediatr 83:1127–31.
4. Bernaix LW, Schmidt CA, Jamerson PA, Seiter L, Smith J 2006, The NICU experience of lactation and its relationship to family management style. MCN Am J Matern Child Nur 31(2):L95–100.
© Australian Breastfeeding Association February 2016