In A World Where Breastfeeding Women Are Being Failed, Why Are We Even Thinking About Supporting Men To Breastfeed?

Before we even begin to think about men breastfeeding, we should ensure every mother gets the help she needs to do it
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A new toolkit has been developed, aimed at allowing fathers of the future to breastfeed their baby. The idea from a recently graduated product designer “involves a man taking a cocktail of drugs throughout his partner’s pregnancy so that he grows milk ducts in time for the birth”.

Men can, in theory, lactate. And there have been documented cases of transgender women undergoing similar procedures to produce breastmilk. This is not about those specific circumstances, which are unique to each couple, and for which expert information and support is available. Rather, this method is aimed at fathers who would just like to experience breastfeeding.

Doctors have already urged caution in the use of hormones but, whether this product turns out to even be viable or not, there are a number of other serious reasons why this should be nowhere near the top of our priorities.

1. Breastfeeding support for mothers is being demolished

The UK has the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world. A major part of that is because women do not get the professional support they need to breastfeed, and services are being cut more and more every day. Alongside that women are still being criticised for breastfeeding in public, and in the US, still have no paid maternity leave to care for their baby.

If we are going to invest anything into feeding babies, it should be into supporting women to be able to breastfeed, rather than leaving them to experience painful complications, putting them at increased risk of postnatal depression fuelled by having to stop breastfeeding before they are ready. Before we even begin to think about men breastfeeding, we should ensure every mother gets the help she needs to do it.

2. If we are prioritising increasing milk supply, women must come first

A number of health conditions - such as insufficient breast tissue and illnesses like diabetes or thyroid issues - can affect women’s ability to produce enough breastmilk. Women with these issues are usually told there is nothing that can be done, and to supplement with formula. If we are going to invest anything in helping anyone produce milk, it should be these women, not men ― who are likely to only produce a partial milk supply anyway.

3. Babies’ health and safety must come first, not men’s desires

Breastfeeding mothers are frequently told (usually incorrectly) to err on the side of caution when it comes to diet, lifestyle, and medication, because we do not know how it might affect babies. Women - who already have high levels of the hormones needed to breastfeed - are often warned against taking the very hormones this toolkit recommends men take in higher amounts. If ever we encourage men to breastfeed it should only be after research shows it is safe for the baby.

4. Breastfeeding is more than just milk, it protects women’s health too

Not breastfeeding increases risk of breast and ovarian cancer, heart disease, diabetes and stroke, to name a few. Men who want to breastfeed are asking women to risk their own health in order to allow them to experience it.

5. Frequent feeding is needed for milk supply

Breastfeeding works on a demand and supply basis. Essentially, the more milk that is removed from the breast, the more milk is made. Women are warned not to supplement with formula, or use a dummy, as this can mean milk is not removed, or feeding cues are missed. If they give a bottle they are advised to express milk to keep up their supply.

How will shared feeding work in reality? There can be tensions even in a healthy relationship with just one person breastfeeding. If a man decides he wants to feed the baby, the mother will likely need to express. They will have to put in more time and effort, in a way many women find tiring and uncomfortable, in order to allow him to do this.

The postnatal period is not a time when women should be doing more to make men feel comfortable. It should be a time when they are cared for, so they can recover from birth and get feeding established, something many women in the UK are already not afforded.

6. Women already experience significant inequality in healthcare

Women, especially women of colour, already experience huge inequities in health care. The world invests far more heavily in male reproductive and sexual health than female. Men get answers for their medical issues when women do not. Five times as much research is conducted into erectile dysfunction than research into premenstrual syndrome and dysphoric disorder, for example, despite these conditions affecting five times as many women than men. We must not lose even more investment in protecting female health to meet men’s desires.

7. There are many more pressing issues new fathers are experiencing

If we’re going to talk about investment in men, the finger should very much be pointing in a different direction. Suicide is the leading cause of death for men under 50. With increasing recognition for men’s vulnerability to depression and anxiety when they become fathers, why not invest in something that genuinely is needed and will protect the whole family?

Globally, breastfeeding saves billions of pounds but you cannot profit from it. And that’s what this ultimately comes down to. Profit. Not what’s best for babies, mothers, or even the men themselves.

There are many ways fathers can bond with their baby, and courses available to help them to do so. Cuddle them, wear them in a sling, hold them skin to skin. By all means if your partner is not there, latch the baby on for comfort. Sit with your partner as she feeds. Make her a meal ― which is indirectly feeding the baby. And realise that this time, when a baby is exclusively breastfed, is so short in the grand scheme of things.

In the time it would take for a man to invest in breastfeeding, there are so many better things he could do, the most useful of which would be to demand better support and investment for his partner and baby.