Expert Source: Amy O’Malley, RN, MSN
It’s no secret that breastfeeding takes a lot out of a new parent. Nursing can be painful, it takes a lot of physical energy, and it can take a serious mental and emotional toll on the lactating parent—their body is literally what is keeping their baby nourished and alive. It’s a big responsibility for one person, which is why it’s so important for partners to step in and help.
As a mom of five, nurse, and director of education and clinical services at Medela, Inc., Amy O’Malley, RN, MSN, is well-versed in the pains of breastfeeding parents, which is why she enlisted the help of her husband, David, when she was nursing. With the help of the O’Malleys, we created a list of helpful tips for anyone who is looking for ways to support their breastfeeding partner.
Know the Basics of Breastfeeding
To get started, you have to understand how breastfeeding actually works. Get schooled on the different methods of nursing and the common challenges that come with feeding a new baby, such as finding the right position and establishing a milk supply (and the worries that often follow with having enough milk in the early days of parenthood). Read articles, pick up a parenting book, and tag along for appointments with the lactation consultant. Awareness of what Mom is struggling with will allow the two of you to tackle the issue together, rather than leaving it all up to her to figure out.
Let Her Pump in Peace
Lactating parents may choose to pump breast milk for a variety of reasons, like making sure baby is fed when they return to work or to share the feeding load with the non-nursing parent. By bottle-feeding your baby, you’re giving her a little break from breastfeeding, bonding with your baby, and learning baby’s hunger cues. So, whenever Mom needs 30 minutes to pump, let her go to the other room to do it in peace while you care for and bottle feed baby. Bonus points if you help Mom set up a relaxing pumping station.
Keep Her Water Bottle Full and Snacks Stocked
Breastfeeding and pumping require a lot of physical energy from a nursing parent—and staying hydrated and nourished is key to meeting the demands of a hungry baby. Lactating parents need to drink plenty of water throughout the day, so if you notice her water bottle is low or empty, refill it for her. If you see her nursing without water by her side, bring her some. Similarly, make sure the house is stocked with snacks that will help her stay energized and store them somewhere she can easily grab them, like by the glider or at her pumping station.
Volunteer for Cleanup Duty
Be on the lookout for pump parts, nursing accessories, and bottles piling up in the sink (it will happen quickly and often), then pitch in with cleanup so everything is clean and ready to go the next time she needs them. It’s one of the easier ways a co-parent can help support their breastfeeding partner.
Learn Mom’s Cues
You already know how important it is to learn baby’s hunger cues, but it’s also important to recognize your partner’s. In addition to making sure she’s fed and hydrated, stay alert for signs of exhaustion (beyond the normal sleep deprivation of a new parent), anger, and postpartum depression. If it’s becoming clear she’s progressing from frustration to rage in a breastfeeding session, gently explain that you’re going to hold and burp the baby so she can have a few minutes to herself to breathe and calm down. If you’re seeing signs of postpartum depression, try to talk to her about it at a time when she’s not distracted, or if she’s not willing to discuss it, call the OB-GYN to get some advice.
Get Up at Night
This should be obvious, but just in case you’re unaware, Mom’s tired. And the last thing she needs is to see you laying there, sleeping peacefully as she takes on all of the overnight responsibilities. You can support her by bringing the baby to her when it wakes up crying, changing the baby’s diaper, or offering to bottle feed the baby to give her a break. You can also offer her a glass of water, burp baby, or rock the baby back to sleep. Just being present during the night hours is meaningful—not to mention helpful—to a nursing parent. If you’re not sure where to step in at night, have a discussion with your partner to see where she could use your help the most.
Give Her Alone Time
First-time parents—especially nursing parents—need alone time every day to recenter and relax (and no, pumping sessions do not count). If she’s not specifically asking you to take the baby so she can have a break, that doesn’t mean she isn’t in need of some downtime. Give her 30 minutes to herself by taking the baby out on a walk or bringing it with you while you run an errand. This little bit of solo time will do wonders for her mental health and will help her feel less overwhelmed.
Make Sure She Gets the Chance to Shower
When you have a baby on your breast every few hours and regularly spitting up on you throughout the day, it’s easy to take on a “why bother?” attitude when it comes to showering. Still, aside from basic hygiene, we all know how cathartic a shower can be. If your partner isn’t prioritizing her basic needs, step in to give her the time and space she needs to take care of herself. Chances are that she’ll emerge from the shower feeling like a new person. (Note: similar to pumping, showering is not to be considered “alone time.”)
The best thing you can do for your breastfeeding partner is to simply offer encouragement. Remind her that she’s doing great. When things get really difficult for her, it is not your job to decide if it is or isn’t the right time for her to wean, your role is to offer her a safe space to vent (and maybe a hug). This is the time to be her number-one cheerleader—which shouldn’t be hard for you to do because you already know she’s a fantastic parent.
Breastfeeding is one of the most selfless things a parent can do, but just because you aren’t the one who is lactating doesn’t mean you don’t play a part. Remember, you’re a team. So, while Mom is busy taking care of the baby, make sure you’re doing whatever you can to take care of her.
This article was originally published in 2016 and has been updated by Ashley Ziegler.