I heard recently about a husband who was unable to join his wife at a birthing class on breastfeeding because the other women in the class didn’t want a man in their midst. As someone working to change our culture around breastfeeding, I see this as more than a mere missed opportunity.
Far from being an unwelcome distraction, fathers have a crucial role in supporting breastfeeding. Advocates for breastfeeding must include men in the larger conversation. Doctors, nurses and healthcare professionals must authentically engage fathers in planning for breastfeeding as one part of their role as caregivers. All of us must come to see fathers as a key part of a support system that enables more women, babies, and communities to benefit from breastfeeding.
Breastfeeding success is up to all of us
We know that breastfeeding is best for babies and offers important health benefits to mothers. I believe that our society benefits when all women and babies have the opportunity to benefit from breastfeeding; this is especially important for communities that face significant health disparities.
The majority of women want to breastfeed, and nearly 75 percent of mothers nationally initiate breastfeeding. The challenge is that many women face barriers in their communities, their health care experiences, their workplaces, and even their own families. As the 2011 Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Support Breastfeeding rightly points out, every one of us has a role in helping women overcome the barriers to breastfeeding success.
Fathers, in particular, can be one of the most powerful allies in helping aspiring breastfeeding mothers succeed.
Research shows that supportive fathers make a difference
It’s not just common sense. Research highlights the important role of family members, including fathers, in supporting a woman in breastfeeding. In a review of the literature, Kristen M. Mitchell-Box and Kathryn L. Braun considered the impact of male partners on breastfeeding initiation, exclusivity, and continuation and concluded, “Informal sources of support, particularly the male partner, have more influence on breastfeeding behaviors than formal support from health care providers.” In a cross-sectional study investigating the relationship between mothers’ choice of breastfeeding and support from health professionals and lay people, Elsa R. J. Giugliani and colleagues concluded, “A favorable attitude of partners towards breastfeeding was the most important factor associated with breastfeeding.”
Recent research commissioned by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation revealed that among women who succeeded with breastfeeding, encouragement from family members was high. Likewise, new mothers who participated in focus groups shared that family support or lack thereof affected their decision to breastfeed. Additionally, health care provider focus group participants noted that lack of support from family members, especially fathers and grandmothers, was a barrier to breastfeeding.
Fathers have a vital role as part of the breastfeeding team
As we think more holistically about families and the role of fathers as equal caregivers, we must acknowledge the challenges many fathers themselves face in supporting breastfeeding.
Fathers need support on the many ways they can be engaged with their babies and the critical importance of this engagement. A dad can help soothe his baby when the baby gets fussy. He can take charge of bath time, diapering, or dressing the baby. He also can be involved in handling breast milk and feeding breast milk from a bottle when mom is away or needs a break.
At the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s First Food Forum in March, NFL running back Justin Forsett joined his wife, Angela, to deliver a keynote. Forsett admitted that he knew nothing at first about breastfeeding but attended birthing classes and continues to give Angela his full support. “Breastfeeding is like football,” Forsett concluded. “It’s a team sport.”
Health care providers can reach out to dads from the start
The story about the father who was made to feel unwelcome at a birthing class was shared by a participant during a session on men as caregivers at the forum. But even with this story shared, the tenor of the session was highly optimistic.
Ruti Levtov of Promundo-US presented Promundo’s Global MenCare Campaign as a model for engaging fathers in parenting classes and support groups to create a culture of meaningful caregiving. Breastfeeding advocate V. Kuroji Patrick called on health care professionals to focus on fathers, pointing out that reaching more fathers will ultimately help reach more mothers.
A doctor participating in the Men as Caregivers session recounted a moment that was transformative for him. Last August, he walked into a patient room and asked the father, “Is this your first child?” The father smiled and said, “You know, you’re the first person to ask me that.” This is the sort of question that should be asked a million times over. It’s the start of a conversation that engages fathers, in turn leading to support for mothers and success in breastfeeding for all.
Diana N. Derige is a program officer at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, where she leads the First Food program. Before joining the foundation in 2010, Diana worked for more than 10 years in public health, public policy, advocacy, and community-based philanthropy. She held positions as a program officer for the Chicago Community Trust, a state coordinator for the Ounce of Prevention Fund, and a program manager for the Illinois Public Health Institute.
Ms. Derige has been a fellow for the National Hispana Leadership Institute, the Mid-America Regional Public Health Leadership Institute, and the University of Michigan’s HIV/AIDS Intervention in South Africa. She holds a bachelor of arts degree in sociology and women’s studies and a master’s in public health from the University of Michigan. She also holds a certificate in executive education from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and completed a leadership development program through the Center for Creative Leadership-Europe in Brussels, Belgium.
 American Academy of Pediatrics. (2012, March). Breastfeeding and the use of human milk. Pediatrics, 129(3), 600–603. http://www2.aap.org/breastfeeding/files/pdf/Breastfeeding2012ExecSum.pdf.
 U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. (2011, January 20). Surgeon General’s call to action to support breastfeeding. http://www.surgeongeneral.gov/library/calls/breastfeeding/index.html.
 Mitchell-Box, K. M., & Braun, K. L. (2013, November). Impact of male-partner-focused interventions on breastfeeding initiation, exclusivity, and continuation. Journal of Human Lactation, 29(4), 473–479. http://jhl.sagepub.com/content/29/4/473.abstract.
 Giugliani, E. R. J., Caiaffa, W. T., Vogelhut, J., Witter, F. R., & Perman, J. A. (1994, September). Effect of breastfeeding support from different sources on mothers’ decisions to breastfeed. Journal of Human Lactation, 10(3), 157–161. http://jhl.sagepub.com/content/10/3/157.short.
 LJR Custom Strategies. (2013, February). WKKF First Food poll. http://www.wkkf.org/news-and-media/article/2013/02/poll-americans-overwh....