How To Support Nursing Parents
Breastfeeding can be many things—challenging, exhausting, deeply gratifying—but it shouldn’t feel solitary. Every parent deserves a support system to weather the inevitable ups and downs of lactation: They deserve a village.
We interviewed TLN IBCLC Demi Lucas about how to bolster the nursing parent in your life. Here’s what we learned.
Why Support During Breastfeeding is Essential
According to Lucas, “One of the most important factors in longevity and breastfeeding success is the support and encouragement of the partner.” Whether that partner is a spouse or domestic partner, a devoted friend or family member, or an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC): they serve a crucial role in helping the lactating parent meet their breastfeeding goals.
Per International Breastfeeding Journal, “many women find breastfeeding challenging to sustain beyond the first three postpartum months.” While lactating parents with “partners who seemed ambivalent, motivated only by “what’s best for baby,” or provided negative feedback about breastfeeding, felt less confident in their ability to breastfeed,” the journal reports that lactating parents “reporting positive support from their partners had higher confidence in breast milk production and higher breastfeeding self-efficacy as measured by the BSES (Breastfeeding Self-Efficacy Scale).” It’s also worth noting that this encouragement can—and should—begin before the baby arrives.
Support During Pregnancy
“The more you know about breastfeeding, the more you can support your partner,” affirms The USDA’s WIC Breastfeeding Support resource. Reading the books they’re reading, attending prenatal breastfeeding classes, becoming acquainted with the delivery hospital or birthing center and the delivery team there, and consulting our Research Library can help a support partner establish a critical baseline of lactation knowledge.
Encouraging a lactating parent to request a personalized prenatal lactation consultation—and offering to meet with their IBCLC—is another proven way to help set them up for breastfeeding success.
From there, support partners can ask more informed questions and align with the lactating parent’s breastfeeding goals. By making gentle inquiries like ‘‘Do you want to do skin-to-skin contact in the hospital? What is your goal for breastfeeding? Do you have plans to use a breast pump so that I can feed the baby expressed milk and let you sleep sometimes?” you can embark on this journey together with a shared understanding of the lactating parent’s expectations and intentions.
Support at the Hospital or Birthing Center
Once at the hospital, a support partner can help ensure those expectations and intentions are met. Lucas suggests that support partners “advocate for the golden hour after birth (the magical hour or so immediately after delivery when a newborn is alert enough to breastfeed), inform staff that your partner will be breastfeeding and will want to room in with the baby as much as possible, remind the breastfeeding parent about the information you learned in your prenatal breastfeeding class [if needed], and ask for an IBCLC to come by each day during the hospital stay… even if things seem to be going well!”
Key Ways to Support a Lactating Parent at Home
After the baby is born, empathy and open communication remain essential. Support partners and lactating parents alike have new roles, new identities, and a brand new human in their midst—plus exhaustion, abundant emotions, and in the case of a birthing parent, vastly different hormone levels and a body in need of healing. Now is the time to give lactating parents all the slack they need, and help take care of themselves and the baby. Here are a few ways to do that:
- Refill the lactating parent’s water constantly. They need to be hydrated to keep up their milk supply and recover from birth.
- Likewise, breastfeeding parents need nourishing food and lots of it. Prepare meals and snacks, sign up for a meal delivery service, or ask family and friends to help keep your kitchen stocked.
- Ideally, introducing a bottle is delayed for a few weeks while baby and parent learn to breastfeed, but you can still wake up in the middle of the night to bring the baby to the lactating parent, so they don’t need to get out of bed.
- Practice skin-to-skin contact with the baby, yourself, while the lactating parent rests.
- Limit visitors so the lactating parent can recover.
- Handle chores. Clean, do laundry, run errands—anything the lactating parent and child need.
- Offer encouragement and remind the lactating parent that they’re doing great.
- Handle diaper changes, burping the baby, bathing, swaddling, going on walks, and if/when the lactating parent begins to pump, take it upon yourself to feed the baby and sanitize breast pump parts and bottles.
Supporting a Lactating Parent’s Return to Work
Speaking of breast pumps, the transition back to work after parental leave can be emotional and taxing. Lucas recommends that support partners take over as many household tasks as possible.”Making sure the workload is being delegated appropriately will ensure the lactating parent has the time and energy to focus on keeping breastfeeding well-established and successful. This will be directly related to how well they are able to juggle and balance returning to work as a lactating parent,” Lucas shared.
Breastfeeding Medicine by Su-Ying Tsai echoes this sentiment. It found that a “partner’s initial support of the choice to breastfeed and encouragement to use the lactation room and milk expression breaks…were significant predictors of the intention to continue to breastfeed after returning to work.” Studies like Tsai’s are particularly important, given that only about 25 percent of lactating parents meet their breastfeeding goals, and 43 percent of women leave the workforce within three months of childbirth. It’s clear that when it comes to breastfeeding, support is paramount.
See if your workplace has a lactation program in place to support nursing parents. If not, advocate for one on their behalf and talk to your boss about the importance of breastfeeding support. Programs like TLN’s Newborn Families are designed to give more families the support they deserve during this critical time in their (and their baby’s) life.
What to Do If They Are Struggling
First thing’s first: Encourage them to connect with an IBCLC. A lactation expert can give them personalized guidance, identify and solve any issues they’re facing, and create a care plan for them that prioritizes their own well-being as well as the baby’s.
…And know when enough’s enough. “Sometimes breastfeeding doesn’t feel right, or it just doesn’t work out,” states VeryWell Family. “When your partner has difficulty and is thinking about giving up, it’s OK to encourage [them] to give it another shot or to take a break and try again later…[but] being supportive means that you will try to understand and be there for [them] whatever [they] choose.”
Finding Support As a Single Parent
Support partners do not have to be co-parents—they can come from anywhere. Lucas offered the reminder that “lactating parents can reliably turn to IBCLCs [in person or virtually] for breastfeeding guidance and support. There are also many community groups that single lactating parents can lean on during the fourth trimester, including peer breastfeeding support groups. Local hospitals and pediatric practices occasionally have new parent groups or breastfeeding support groups, as well.” And the communities lactating parents already have in place—friends, family, neighbors, coworkers, and any organizations they’re part of—can be called on, too. No matter a parent’s relationship status, they are not alone.
Parenthood isn’t always easy, but knowing that someone has your back is everything. And as a support partner, remember that you also deserve support. If any questions or concerns arise throughout this process, don’t hesitate to reach out to an IBCLC. They’re ready and eager to help.