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Why Dads Need to Be Involved in Breastfeeding

My nipples are useless.

Wait, "superfluous." My nipples are superfluous. I'm fond of them, but they don't serve much of a purpose.

With that in mind, when my wife was pregnant and I told my friends that we were going to a breastfeeding class together, some of them wanted to know "WHY?" What benefit could I possibly glean from the class? They regarded my presence as completely (you guessed it) superfluous.

I disagreed then and I still disagree now. I think dads—and really any non-breastfeeding partner—should DEFINITELY take an active role when it comes to breastfeeding, even if our own nipples never enter into the equation.

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The key is understanding what that role is.

As a dad, I DO NOT in any way, shape or form play an equal role when it comes to the breastfeeding of my child. It is not a full partnership. I get no veto or vote. The person doing the feedings makes the calls, picks the times and decides things on her own.

I served a support role and that support took many different forms.

For example, that breastfeeding class I mentioned earlier was HORRIBLE. It was more of a pro-breastfeeding screed than anything even vaguely informational. At one point, the teacher—a bullying, self-righteous terror—asked which mothers in the room were planning to return to work after they gave birth. Probably seven of the eight mothers sheepishly raised their hands. The teacher shook her head in dismay. "Wow," she sighed. "This might not be my place, but I think that's the wrong decision for your children … "

She said that to a room full of nervous, first-time mothers without a lick of compassion or context. What a monster.

Society places a ridiculous amount of pressure on women when it comes to breastfeeding, and it comes from both sides of the breastfeeding argument.

After we left, having finally learned a few holds and latching techniques in the final hour, I turned to my dejected wife and said, "We can do this. It's going to be OK."

I was lying.

I had no idea if it was going to be OK. But, when I looked over at my wife, I could see the weight of the world on her shoulders. The instructor didn't tell any of the dads not to go back to work. The instructor hadn't told any horror stories about what could happen to the pores in MY nipples. The instructor didn't comment on the life-or-death importance of MY ability to produce milk.

It was ALL on my wife.

Society places a ridiculous amount of pressure on women when it comes to breastfeeding, and it comes from both sides of the breastfeeding argument. Each side has factions that want mothers to adhere to their broad, all-encompassing party lines—YAY or NAY, with no in-between—even though breastfeeding, at its core, is an intensely individual and personal experience.

So, in this maelstrom of judgment and doubt, what role can dads possibly play?

They can shut up and trust their partner. Nursing moms NEED people who are unconditionally on their side. And that's a role that dads should be able to run with.

We are not there to be armchair quarterbacks. We're the towel boys, the physical therapists, the people who refill the Gatorade. We can't play the game ourselves, so we're there to make the players' lives easier.

We can go to classes and read books, but only to serve as a quick reference. We can suggest and remind, but never, ever get to say "No" or "You're doing it wrong."

We can encourage. We can smile a lot, even when exhausted. We can learn how the breast pump works. We can make sure that we always have clean bottles, cover-ups and burp cloths ready to go.

We can refrain from ever, EVER quoting a breastfeeding fact or statistic or horror story in front of our partners. We can glare at people who make faces when our partner breastfeeds in public. If we have a recently pregnant friend who keeps talking about how easy and life-fulfilling breastfeeding was—in front of our partner who struggles with it constantly—we can make sure the subject gets changed ASAP.

We can do our best to have our partner's back, without making a big deal about it. She has enough to deal with.

In the end, my wife had to stop breastfeeding earlier than she would've liked. She was sad and frustrated and felt very, very judged.

Dads shouldn't get to make any ultimate decisions, but there is definitely a role for love, logistics, concern, commiseration and unconditional support.

That was when I probably played my most important role in the breastfeeding process. I didn't say "What if … " I didn't act disappointed. I could tell that she'd reached her end, and I trusted her.

So I commiserated. I said, "Yeah." I hugged her. I agreed that it sucked.

And I'm not saying that I was perfect—or that any dad could be. I'm sure I messed up more times that I ever even noticed.

But when people suggest that dads don't (or shouldn't) play a role in breastfeeding, I have to disagree. Dads shouldn't get to make any ultimate decisions, but there is definitely a role for love, logistics, concern, commiseration and unconditional support when a woman you love is breastfeeding.

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And that's important. That's the opposite of superfluous. And that's something that I think dads can do well, even with these useless things on our chests.

Image via Tom Burns

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