If my partner chooses to breastfeed, how might that affect me?
When a baby is born to parents who are separated, or who go on to separate while they are young, there needs to be some additional considerations if that baby is breastfed when it comes to being separated from their mum to visit their dad
What is important to recognise is that there are ways to protect and continue the important breastfeeding relationship between mum and baby, without needing to sacrifice dad’s bond with his children – but it can involve a bit of creativity and flexibility on both sides.
Why does how your child feeds, matter?
The World Health Organisation and UNICEF both recommend that babies be breastfed for at least one year and preferably until age two or beyond.
"Study after study now shows, for example, that babies who are not breastfed have higher rates of death, meningitis, childhood leukaemia and other cancers, diabetes, respiratory illnesses, bacterial and viral infections, diarrhoeal diseases, otitis media, allergies, obesity, and developmental delays."
– James T. Grant, the former Executive Director of UNICEF, Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative Newsletter, 1994.
It is a myth that formula milk is basically equivalent to human milk. Research has clearly demonstrated otherwise, and we continue to learn more and more every year about how many benefits it has. Breast milk is made in response to a baby’s needs, and it changes from day to day, dependant on chemical signals sent back and forth between mother and baby. Breast milk contains antibodies and immunities along with nutrition specifically tailored for the baby it has been produced for. And the longer a baby breastfeeds for, the more protection they have against illness and disease.
But, it’s even more than that…
Breastfeeding is not just about an amazing way to feed a baby and protect them from illness; to a baby it is a lot more than this. It is an instinctive means of comfort and a place of security. Babies will often suckle at the breast to calm down, to go to sleep, to cope with pain, or to just feel close to their mum. Taking away the breast from a breastfed baby, can leave them without their coping mechanisms and important comfort.
What does this mean in practical terms for separated dads?
When a child is very young, they need frequent and regular access to the breast – this is crucial to both establish breastfeeding, and ensure it continues. This is basic biology – whenever the baby feeds, it signals to the body to produce more milk. Growing babies need more milk, so they feed more to get mum’s body to respond and provide for them. So this means that babies often need to feed as much as every couple of hours, which obviously would restrict a baby from being separated from their mum for several hours at a time.
While it may be possible, after your baby is 8 weeks old, for your ex-partner to express breast milk and you to feed this to your baby by a bottle or cup in her absence, it is really important to understand that it is not that simple for every mother-baby breastfeeding relationship. Many women find that they can only continue to produce enough milk for their baby if they feed their babies directly, and not through a bottle, for every feed.
In addition, as discussed above, babies feed for a host of reasons, and hunger/thirst is only one of them. Giving your baby a bottle of breast milk is not the same experience for a baby as cuddling into their mum if they need comforting. This is not a reflection in any way of their bond with you, but just about instinctive human behaviours and primary attachments in infants.
It is also important to realise that it is also normal behaviour for a breastfeeding child to wake through the night, to feed, for the first couple of years. If the child does not have access to do this, it can cause them undue stress and anxiety, and again can possibly lead to difficulties for mum in producing enough milk.
Overall, forcing a breastfeeding baby or child into long periods of separation from its mum before they are developmentally ready, can cause those issues and can also potentially impact on their relationship with you.
It isn’t personal
It might sometimes feel like breastfeeding is an excuse to limit your access to your child, or make it more difficult for you to see them, but this is rarely the case. Breastfeeding is a special and intensive bond between mother and child, but it is a relationship which is built upon being close.
As your child gets older, they will become able to spend longer lengths of time away from your ex-partner. A good measure of working out what is possible, is to look at what other occasions they have time away from mum, and for how long these are. For example, for a breastfed child that goes to nursery and can do a 4 hour stint there, there is no reason linked to breastfeeding to stop them spending 4 hours with you.
It doesn’t need to be one over the other
There will always be ways to make sure that you can still see your child and develop your bond with them, while still making sure that they get to benefit from being breastfed. There is no reason that being considerate and giving respect to the breastfeeding relationship means that your relationship has to be neglected or means that it is not important.
It just about how you and your ex-partner can work together to find a way to give your child everything they need.
Do bear in mind that children do grow and change quickly, and how something is in the first 6 months, will not necessarily be how it is in the next 6, or the 6 after that.
In reality, to both respect your time with your child, and their breastfeeding needs, you will both (especially while they are young) need to be flexible and in all likelihood arrange short but frequent visits. As your child gets older, you will be able to organise longer visits, and at some point, even overnight or weekend stays.
It is helpful if you and your ex-partner can work together to make arrangements which work for you both and keep the bests interests of your child at heart. If you do find it difficult, it may be sensible to use a mediator. If you want to find out more, check out The Family Mediation Council https://www.familymediationcouncil.org.uk/