Fathers and grandparents need to discover their own ways to bond with exclusively breastfed babies.
“You’ve never given your baby a bottle? Not one? How does Dad bond with the baby?” are questions posed to mothers, like myself, who exclusively breastfeed (EBF) their babies. The question of bonding doesn’t stop with fathers. Other EBF mothers have told me that their family members ask them to make bottles so that they can feed and better “bond” with the baby.
The truth is, bonding with other family members is not something to be concerned about with EBF babies. Just like men and women have unique gifts to offer the world as a result of their masculinity and femininity, moms, dads, grandmas, grandpas, and other family members have their own unique ways of bonding with exclusively-breastfed babies, which they should be encouraged to discover and embrace for themselves. My own family’s experience is evidence of that.
First, a little backstory: When I got pregnant, my husband, Michael, and I agreed that our son would exclusively receive breastmilk for (at least) the first six months of his life, if that was at all possible. We didn’t rule out pumping to prepare bottles of breastmilk, but when Gabriel had difficulty breathing at birth, I was forced to pump for a few days in the hospital to ensure my milk supply came in.
As a result, I developed quite the love/hate relationship with the breast pump, and was thrilled when he was well enough to breastfeed. In the weeks following Gabriel’s birth, I found that taking him on my errands and dinner dates was less daunting and less complicated than pumping. And, because I’m fortunate enough to work from home, bottle-feeding was never an imperative for me as it is for moms who work outside the home. As a result, in the five months since Gabriel’s birth (outside of his first week in the hospital), he has only ever been fed at the breast.
Recently, as I was reflecting on the fact that Gabriel has been exclusively breastfed, I asked Michael if he thought he’d missed out on bonding with Gabriel as a result of my exclusive breastfeeding. “Well, no,” he said, “I bond with him in other ways. Doesn’t it make sense that dads would have different ways of bonding with their babies than moms do?” And with that, I felt like my husband dropped some much-needed wisdom about the meaning of our bodies on the whole subject.
Men and women are equal in dignity, but we offer different gifts to the world due to our inherent femininity and masculinity. This is especially true regarding family life and the different gifts that mothers and fathers possess and offer to their children. I see this wisdom in action when I watch Michael play silly games with Gabriel – no one makes Gabriel laugh or smile quite like his Dada does. But when playtime gets a little overwhelming, or when his teething gums are bothering him, there’s no one Gabriel wants more than me, his mama.
In the past five months, I’ve come to see that breastfeeding is a gift I’m uniquely suited to give to Gabriel as his mother, and my husband agrees. In the early days of learning to breastfeed, Michael functioned as the protector of the breastfeeding relationship between Gabriel and me. From changing diapers to walking the floors of the hospital with our wailing, sick baby (so that I could get some precious sleep), Michael made it possible for me to focus on getting the breastfeeding thing down. Michael’s steadfast support was the biggest factor in my eventual breastfeeding success, and it was among the first ways in which he bonded with Gabriel.
As for bonding with his grandmothers? When my mother and mother-in-law visited after Michael returned to work, they took over for him in that daily supportive capacity. Both women relished (so they insist) the early mornings and late nights changing diapers, playing, singing, and chattering with Gabriel while I slept. Each found her own way to comfort and connect with him. Although neither ever gave Gabriel a single bottle. Grandma Sue found she could sing him nonsense songs and he’d quickly calm down, while Grammy Za found a unique way of holding him that had the same effect. If that’s not bonding, I don’t know what is.
Exclusive breastfeeding doesn’t need to impede a father’s (or any other family member’s) ability to bond with a baby – in fact, it can help foster a unique relationship between baby and other relatives and close friends. And gives new moms much-needed breaks, while respecting the unique bond she has with her baby.
If you’re a mother who wants to exclusively breastfeed, but family members pressure you to make bottles for them to “bond” with baby, take a page from our experience and share some of my husband’s wisdom with them. It may just help them foster a special relationship with your baby that is uniquely suited to who they are.