My wife’s eyes teared up. I held her hand inside the cramped office while our newborn son, wearing just a diaper, was being weighed down to the ounce.
We were visiting a lactation consultant — a medical official whose entire, heroic job is helping new moms learn how to breastfeed and overcome hurdles.
Our son Elliott weighed more than 6 pounds at birth, not bad considering he was a month early (officially called “late preterm”). But he had now dipped below 6 pounds after struggling to nurse.
That kind of news is devastating for breastfeeding moms. They have been told so often that their bodies are designed to feed their baby, so if it doesn’t work, it’s like “What the hell!?!?”
New dads, know this:
Breastfeeding can be one of the most grueling, challenging, emotional, and rewarding experiences your partner has ever experienced.
Mom after mom I’ve talked to has talked about how frustrating it was when their baby had problems latching. Or didn’t want to take their nipple at all. Or who would bite down. Hard.
My own wife has breastfeed my son and our twin girls. That’s hero stuff. If you ever want a reminder that your girlfriend/wife is a miracle worker, watch her breastfeed. It doesn’t even make SENSE.
There is milk coming out of her body! Food! Just, right there! Where you used to hang out!
But it rarely comes easy. According to the lactation consultant and other research, about 77% of moms breastfeed at least for a short period, so if you’re expecting, it’s likely she’ll be doing this, and she’s going to have a tough time. Only 36% of moms are still breastfeeding at 6 months.
Let’s be honest. If dads had to breastfeed, our kids wouldn’t last a week.
You need to be the most supportive partner you’ve ever been. This is not the time for judging. Or for offering a bunch of tips. Or for saying “Maybe we should just try formula” like you are trying to be supportive but secretly are just hoping she quits so you don’t have to see her struggle.
If she’s breastfeeding, she knows what she’s signing up for. What she needs from you is love, encouragement, and you taking care of whatever else you can with the baby so she can focus.
With our son, we were extremely into the idea of breastfeeding our son. But late preterms don’t have the mouth size and skills yet to be great at latching.
And that’s when, just days into fatherhood, I had my first serious case of “I want to help with the baby, but I don’t know how’s”.
The good news is that our hospital had incredibly helpful lactation consultants. (Insurance covers this, by the way, in many cases).
The bad news is that doesn’t mean our son magically became great at latching on.
His weight was dropping, partially because he wasn’t getting enough through breastfeeding. He dipped below 6 pounds, and he was jaundiced.
Imagine you had a beautiful, healthy baby, and watched him get smaller and sicker, all because he wasn’t great at nursing.
What a trip to the lactation consultant was like
We were exhausted by the time we had our lactation consultant appointment. We were bewildered. We were so happy to have Elliott, and yet so baffled about what he needed and wanted.
The way the appointments are set up, Elliott was weighed at the start, then my wife would nurse him until he was done, and then he would get weighed again to see the difference in weight. When you’re a late preterm, weight is basically everything. Every ounce matters.
Yes, they could tell when it’s a matter of ounces. I hope to God it’s not like that after I eat Chipotle burritos.
Elliott, with a tinge of yellow on his skin, was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen at that point, and all I wanted to do was take care of him like my dad took care of me or like all the dads in the TGIF lineup took care of their sitcom kids, at least.
And yet here we were, crammed into a patient room with a consultant peering at a scale and then telling us that our son wasn’t gaining enough weight.
My wife became emotional, as you might expect. I felt tears in my eyes looking at my wife, who I loved so much for so many different reasons, feeling helpless, like she wasn’t going to be a good mom because she “couldn’t do the thing moms are designed to do,” as she and others often put it during breastfeeding struggles.
Those consultant visits were tough, but worth it.
Parenting, you find out quickly, isn’t about having all the right answers. It’s about adapting. And new dads better get good at it, fast.
We got a plan from the consultant. A plan that, looking back, I can’t believe we actually pulled off. A plan that I can now say not only helped me get super involved right away, but also gave me confidence that yeah, sure, I can do this dad thing.
Here was our new breastfeeding schedule:
Sara would nurse Elliott as long as she could. This would take anywhere from 10-20 minutes. And he wouldn’t get much, cause his mouth just wasn't big enough.
When she was done, she’d continue pumping as much as she could.
Meanwhile, I would take a plastic syringe and fill it with an ounce of breast milk. I’d attach a thin plastic tube to one end, and tape the other end to my index finger. Then, holding Elliott, I’d slowly feed him by putting the tubed finger in his mouth – giving him something to suck on – while pressing down on the syringe. We’re talking ultra slow on this.
I’d take 20 minutes to get him to take maybe half an ounce. It was hard for him to keep up, and some days he wouldn’t really take anything and we’d feel like crying again because we just wanted him to grow and be healthy.
On a side note, this kid is now a Kindergartner who eats nonstop. Go figure.
Someone would clean up the pumping supplies and the syringe to be ready for the next feeding, while the other would change him.
Did you add up the time?
About 15 minutes for the first part
20 minutes for the second part
10 for cleaning
We just did 45 minutes and that’s not including us trying to eat or shower or do anything.
We were supposed to feed him upward of 12 times a day. So about 45 minutes out of every two hours was taken up with nothing but the feeding process.
The other hour was taken up trying to get him to sleep - he slept in 15-20 minute chunks in the early weeks - or trying to eat something ourselves or maybe get something else done as our very helpful in-laws were on hand to keep up with housework so we didn’t end up on “Hoarders.”
When you add all that up, there was quite literally no time to do anything. I remember being so tired I couldn’t speak complete sentences.
“Man, Andy,” you’re thinking. “This doesn’t sound like a pep talk.”
It's the reality of one newborn baby. My newborn baby.
And to let you know that you can do this. You can do the crazy schedule. You can be the supportive dad. And you can watch your baby go from struggling to nurse to becoming one of the biggest toddlers around (Elliott around ages 2-3 was at the 90+ percentile for height and weight. All of that breastfeeding struggle early on? We can see the results as he started gaining a pound a week at one point and became a nursing pro for the next year.*
Yours might end up being entirely different! You may breastfeed, or use formula, or have a preemie, or have a full-term baby. So many factors. So many babies. Whatever approach you decide is fine. But stick with it. Know that breastfeeding is natural and yet hard to master. Know that formula can create its own set of challenges.
And you know what? I got an awesome son out of it, and two daughters who went from the NICU to thriving toddlers. But you can't get to that point - the part where he's playing games with me and saying funny things and being adorable - unless you go through the hard early stuff. You gotta earn your stripes.
I'd love to hear what your first month was like! Not there yet? Let me know what you're worried about.
* Not every baby picks up breastfeeding. It can be a problem that never really meets a solution for some parents. The good news is there are other options. Don't let people make you feel bad about what you need to do to keep your baby healthy. Breastfeeding worked out for us. Another option might be better for you. Trust me - you'll hear a lot from either side!