Don't be a boob: A guy's guide to breast-feeding

Even the most involved new fathers can sometimes feel a little lost when it comes to breast-feeding. Men can’t do the job so it hardly seems like their business.

But a study published earlier this week found that new moms who stress out over breast-feeding are more likely to consider throwing in the nursing blanket and switching to formula, despite the reams of evidence that breast-feeding exclusively for six months is best for a baby’s short- and long-term health. Fathers, it turns out, have an important role to play in helping mothers stick to it, despite reluctance to impose any opinions on the matter.

Breast-feeding is something so uniquely, powerfully, female, men may even become envious of the intimate bond between mother and baby. Nicholas Mrnarevic, a 34-year-old chef and photographer in Closter, N.J., and the father of two young children, one of whom is breast feeding, said in an interview that he regards the “completely beautiful” process with “awe.”

Nicholas Mrnarevic shares a moment with his wife, Karen, and brand-new baby girl Olivia.

There’s nothing wrong with awe, but it can lead to a certain remove. “It’s her show,” Mrnarevic said. “I can be in charge of making sure that when the baby burps or spits up, I clean up. I can make sure she hiccups. But I don’t feed.”

Like Mrnarevic, Michael Elian, 37, an actor in West New York, N.J., is a very involved father. He’s been so busy helping with his 4-month-old “sometimes I can’t even get a shower,” he said. “I knew it would take work and attention, but I had no idea it would be to this extent!”

Despite his immersion in all things baby, though, “if my wife asks me for my opinion on what breast cover she uses, what position for feeding the baby, there’s nothing I can say,” he said. “Those decisions are best left to her.”

Pamela Jordan an associate professor in the Department of Family and Child Nursing at the University of Washington understands the instinct, but believes fathers shouldn’t be afraid to consider themselves an equal partner in breast-feeding.

Breast-feeding can be hard, frustrating, stressful work, she explained. “We no longer live in multi-generational households where young girls grow up watching mothers and aunts and mom’s friends breast-feed,” Jordan said. “Today we have women who tend to have very complicated lives and think they are just going to tuck breast feeding into those very complicated lives.”

So not only do they need the moral support of fathers, but practical support, too. Jordan acknowledged that some new mothers can be “controlling,” but said couples should work “as a team and make decisions as a team about what’s best for baby.“ Ideally, she said, this should begin even before conception when a couple discusses plans for breast-feeding. Immediately after birth, a father can be an advocate for the mother and baby by making sure the newborn is not whisked away, but is instead placed at the breast within the first hour, if possible. “The father should speak up,” she said.  

Both Mrnarevic and Elian are doing what they can to help around the home, which is important, but Jordan explained mothers also need lots of encouragement when they get frustrated, thanks for engaging in what can be a struggle, and understanding of the many changes -- even if temporary -- she’s experiencing. A new mother may be stressed about her body, for example, or whether her partner will ever again view her as an erotic, sexual being. Yet she may not want to be touched sexually. 

Many new mothers stop breast-feeding too early because of relationship stress. “They say ‘everything would be fine if only I weren’t breast-feeding,’ Jordan said. 

A new father can assure the mother she’s still beautiful and desirable. He can offer foot and neck rubs, a hair brushing, or a quiet hot bath while he tends to the baby. Shoring up their own intimacy this way not only helps their relationship, but an awful lot of bonding takes place between fathers and newborns during play time interactions.

Where, when and how to breast-feed can also lead to stress, and public breast-feeding can be especially stressful. When his wife feeds their baby in a public place, Mrnarevic said, she’s very discrete and uses a cover, but despite that, he finds himself standing guard, scanning for wandering eyes or strange looks from others.

As Elian explained, “though it’s being done in public, there is a private element to it.” 

Exactly, said Patricia Napier-Fitzpatrick, founder and director of The Etiquette School of New York. Ideally, breast-feeding is a private, intimate act. Breast-feeding does not exempt anyone from the first rule of etiquette: We all bare some responsibility for the comfort of others. A woman who insists on flaunting breast-feeding in public or not using a cover when a more private option is available “is thinking about herself, not others,” Napier-Fitzpatrick said.

Of course, as Napier-Fitzpatrick acknowledged, feeding a baby in a public place can be unavoidable. Babies get hungry on airplanes, for example. 

In such cases, she said, “a man should not make eye contact, he should try to avert his gaze.” Above all, make no comments, not even seemingly positive comments.

“If I was a male seatmate, I would excuse myself and get up and leave,” she said. If that’s not possible, “try to give her space, as much as you can.” Without making a show of it, “try to turn away slightly. Look elsewhere. If she says something like ‘I’m sorry, I have to do this,’ reply with a friendly ‘Of course. That’s fine.’”

Brian Alexander is a frequent contributor to NBC News and a co-author of “The Chemistry Between Us: Love, Sex, and the Science of Attraction.”