The trouble with me: breastfeeding and being a stay-at-home dad

Back in November in my first blog post, why I’m taking six months off work to look after my kids, I talked about some of the reasons for me deciding to take shared parental leave. One of those reasons was that I hoped it would give me a chance to be an equal parent alongside my wife. Without wanting to sound too sanctimonious about it, the idea that I would head off to work every day while leaving all the childcare stuff to her never seemed quite right. I didn’t want my role to be a bit-part: I wanted to be in the thick of it, getting my hands dirty (often quite literally).

Although every family’s circumstances are different, on the whole there seems to me to be no real reason why dads can’t be involved as much in day-to-day childcare as mums are. I don’t believe that women are born childcarers any more than men are born doctors or bankers or airline pilots. There is no special intuition or sixth sense that mums possess that make them more ‘in tune’ with their kids. Only an understanding that is developed through lots and lots of time spent with them, which of course women tend to do more than men.

There is, however, a bit of a fly in the ointment for my world view. And that is breastfeeding.

Now I can clean and sterilise bottles, mix formula and administer it to a baby as well as any mum or dad. But breastfeeding is one area I clearly fall short on. With our five-month old having been exclusively breastfed since birth, and with a vague notion that we ought to continue doing it as much as we could, we needed a plan if I was to make my shared parental leave work.

That plan was that my wife would breastfeed our son whenever she was with him during the daytime, and I would bottle feed when she was at work. I would be on night duty with the bottle until 5am, after which my wife would breastfeed if necessary.

Like most things childcare-related though, it didn’t go that smoothly. Introducing bottle feeding to a baby hitherto only breastfed was not difficult at all: he took to it immediately. The difficulty was with the night feeds when there was only one thing that he wanted, and that was something I couldn’t give him. It wasn’t long before my wife ended up doing most of the hard work during the small hours, with me contributing little more than trying to stay awake in sympathy. That was a crushing blow: having been so confident about my child-caring abilities, it now felt like I wasn’t able to fulfil my half of the paternity leave bargain. I was not as capable a dad as I had thought I was.

We tried bottle-feeding with expressed milk, but for various reasons never really got along with it. Eventually, with some regret, we decided to stop breastfeeding altogether from around six months. It worked. He became much better at taking bottles during the night. I’m now able to do my fair share of night feeds, and we both get more sleep. We’re all a lot happier and more energised than we were back in November.

Am I doing the right thing?

We’re often told how important and beneficial breastfeeding is for the health of both children and mums. The Lancet has just published a whole catalogue of evidence of its benefits, including this:

. . . the benefits of breastfeeding . . . fewer infections, increased intelligence, probable protection against overweight and diabetes, and cancer prevention for mothers

Similarly, a BBC News report last week quoted a statement from Save the Children UK and the World Health Organisation:

Promotion and marketing have turned infant formula, which should be seen as a specialised food that is vitally important for those babies who cannot be breastfed, into a normal food for any infant.

All of this raises a bit of an existential question for a stay-at-home dad who relies on formula to feed his child. Am I doing the right thing? Are we trading-off the health of my son and his mum in order to pursue an gender-equal, 21st century way of life? Is my ideal of a society where men are just as likely as women to take time away from work for childcare reasons fundamentally flawed? Some people think so: I recall one of my female colleagues arguing early last year against the introduction of paid shared parental leave at my workplace on the grounds that, without the ability to breastfeed, men cannot make good child-carers. Fortunately most others participating in the consultation disagreed.

Her argument, of course, conveniently ignores the large number of women who successfully raise children on formula because they cannot or choose not to breastfeed. Though there may be compelling benefits to breast milk, there are often very good reasons why a mother might choose to formula-feed: not least that, in our experience, breastfeeding seems to be massively more difficult and painful (metaphorically and literally) than you are led to believe before you have kids. EDIT: Shortly after publishing this blog post I stumbled upon this which does a much better job than I have in explaining this.

In the case of paternity leave, there are some very good arguments indeed in favour of it. A study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) showed that dads who take leave are more likely to be actively involved in childcare as the child grows up. Another study even linked paternity leave to improved performance of children at school. Importantly, paternity leave also allows mothers like my wife to return to their careers earlier and with less disruption, and reduces incentives for sex discrimination against women on the grounds of propensity to take childcare leave, as shown in Sweden where women’s incomes have risen in line with the proportion of childcare leave taken by men (now at 25%).

Personally, and above all else, I feel as though I have a much closer relationship with my children than I would have done if we’d followed the traditional childcare route. I can have no regrets later in life about my role as a dad.

So, I don’t think the benefits of breastfeeding mean that equal parenting is fundamentally flawed. Like many things in life, you choose your own benefits and risks. I know my son is missing out on some of the great benefits of breastfeeding, but I’m also pretty confident that he, my wife and I are all gaining an awful lot from me being on leave.

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