Fathers Hold Key to Breastfeeding Success

March 18, 2014
By Kristie Velarde

In addition to one-on-one counseling and a phone hotline, the Peer Dad program also hosts a Daddy Bootcamp that teaches basic infant care.
In addition to one-on-one counseling and a phone hotline, the Peer Dad program also hosts a Daddy Bootcamp that teaches basic infant care.

A woman’s decision to breastfeed typically occurs long before labor and delivery—sometimes even before she is pregnant. But her commitment to carry through frequently hinges on the opinion of someone often overlooked in breastfeeding education—the baby’s father.

Studies have shown that mothers typically decide to bottle feed because they have uncertainty about having enough breast milk supply and concerns about their ability to breastfeed when returning to work. One major concern, however, is a mother’s perception of the father’s attitude toward breastfeeding1.

“If the father is indifferent, she will breastfeed some of the time, but when the father is pro-breastfeeding, she will breastfeed almost all of the time2,” says Muswamba Mwamba, IBCLC, a peer dad coordinator at the City of Dallas Woman, Infants and Children Program (WIC) Program.

A father’s participation in the decision to breastfeed, his awareness of the health benefits for mom and baby and his approval are critical to a mother breastfeeding after leaving the hospital, particularly for women with lower incomes. Studies have shown that when men are informed about the benefits and skilled in ways to support the mother, outcomes improve.

That’s why the city of Dallas is investing resources in programs that include fathers in breastfeeding education, such as its Peer Dad Program. The Peer Dad initiative pairs future fathers—identified through women receiving services in the clinic—with WIC-trained peer mentors, all fathers of breastfed babies whose partners were enrolled in WIC. The peer dads are trained to inform, coach and offer support.

Since its launch five years ago, the program has engaged more than 700 fathers each month. Breastfeeding initiation in Dallas reached 80 percent in 2011, a number Mwamba attributes in part to a banner year for the Peer Dad program.

“We had the largest team of peer dads in 2011 and implemented many innovative ways to reach expecting and new fathers, intervening not only in the WIC setting but also in high schools and hospitals,” Mwamba says.

Mwamba and the other peer dads are part of a City of Dallas WIC team participating in the Texas Ten Step Star Achiever Breastfeeding Learning Collaborative. The state-wide quality improvement project is a collaboration between the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) Nutrition Services Section (Texas WIC) and NICHQ, which focuses on helping participating birthing hospitals follow the evidence-based Ten Steps to Successful Breastfeeding to improve their maternity care practices. The Peer Dad program focuses on step 3, prenatal education, and step 10, establishing breastfeeding support after discharge.

Fathers have long been absent from the breastfeeding conversation, according to Mwamba. It wasn’t until 1946 that a father was present in a hospital delivery room, and the early 1950s when men were first able to attend pre-natal classes. While experts began studying a father’s role in breastfeeding in the late 1990s, the first father-to-father breastfeeding support pilot program didn’t launch until 2002, in Texas.

“Many people don’t have the privilege of knowing what to do in the hospital, or when returning home, to promote and protect a mother’s commitment to breastfeeding,” Mwamba says. “Preparing fathers is really key.”

Educating men about the benefits of breastfeeding is central to the program. Mwamba says he and his Peer Dad counselors often share the risks of not breastfeeding, such as a higher incidence of allergies and immune deficiencies. He also shares the financial benefits and statistics about breastfed children doing better in school.

In addition to one-on-one counseling and a phone hotline, the Peer Dad program also hosts a Daddy Bootcamp.  There, participants learn about baby behavior, soothing techniques and basic infant care, such as bathing, burping and diaper changing.

Peer counselors must overcome social and cultural barriers. Mwamba says that many African American men, for example, have never seen a woman breastfeed in their community. Others may disapprove of breastfeeding outside the home or come from a family culture that can impact the mother’s breastfeeding disposition.

“Breastfeeding can be difficult for a mom in the beginning,” says Deborah Parnell, breastfeeding coordinator for the City of Dallas WIC Program. “This is when dads can be most helpful and where education received in the Peer Dads program can make a difference; making dads aware of ways they can help mom and make the process easier.”

If a hospital or community doesn’t have the resources to create a Peer Dad support program, Parnell recommends creating a volunteer program. “There are many dads who are very passionate and enthusiastic about breastfeeding and want to share that with other fathers,” Parnell says. “Organization should identify those fathers of breastfed babies who are willing to be trained volunteers and host sessions once a month.”

Learn more about DSHS/ WIC breastfeeding education.

1.Samir Arora et Al. 2000. Major Factors Influencing Breastfeeding Rates: Mother’s Perception of Father’s Attitude and Milk Supply. Pediatrics Vol 106 No 5
2.Jewell Stremler & Dalia Lovera. 2004. Insight From a Breastfeeding Peer Support Pilot Program for Husbands and Fathers of Texas WIC Participants. J Hum Lact 20(4)