There is no doubting all the emotions and thoughts that surge through you as a new Dad. Pride, fear, love, apprehension, excitement. Is the baby OK? Is Mum OK? Who do I call first? Where am I supposed to stand? Where did I leave the car?
Your head is a whirlpool of conflicting thoughts and feelings. One of the overriding feelings for me was that of helplessness. A sense of being on the outer. I’m sure this must be a universal experience, but it’s amplified for the father of a micro-prem. The sense of not knowing what to do is almost overpowering.
Rightly so, mother and baby are the stars of the show. They are at the centre of the care and support being provided by skilled and dedicated medical staff and by family and friends. Outside of being driver, carrier of stuff, fetcher of tea and chief hand holder, there’s a sense that you are essentially an enthusiastic spectator. Although you do have front row tickets and a lifetime membership.
But you want to feel useful. That you can actually do something constructive, purposeful and important towards the care of your baby and the support of your partner. For me, this started with breastmilk and the constant and relentless task of my wife having to express it. There were pumps to set up, bottles to find, equipment to wash, milk to be labelled. And with this task seemingly happening around the clock, I finally had something I could regularly contribute to which felt important and useful. As small as it was, compared to what everyone else was doing. I was now a Milky Dad.
Why is being a Milky Dad important? I won’t go into the details of why breastmilk is important, but trust me when I say it’s potentially life-saving stuff for a micropremmie. But all medical stuff aside, another crucial and often forgotten about benefit of breast milk is the establishment and building of the mother-baby bond. The importance of this can’t be over-emphasized, emotionally, psychologically and clinically. Anything you can do as a Dad to help foster and support this is massively important; for both mother and baby, in equal doses.
So how can a Dad support his partner and baby to breastfeed in the NICU environment?
- Keep the supply of sterile breastmilk storage bottles well stocked – if your NICU supplies them grab them on the way in and way every day.
- Keep breast pump components clean, sterile and ready to go.
- Prepare breastmilk bottle labels with your baby’s details, and date and time of pumping.
- Make sure Mum is eating. It’s a stressful time and she will want to spend every available minute with baby. This means that basic and practical things like feeding yourself can go out the window, directly affecting both energy and milk levels; and not to mention emotional state. Fetch food, enlist friends to supply meals, or drag her off for a break every now and again.
- Similarly, make sure she always has water or fluids to hand (and that she drinks it). Milk production levels are tied directly to the mother’s fluid levels.
- Another crucial basic connected to milk production, mother’s health and general sanity, is sleep. It’s likely you’ll bot be short-changed on this front. But mum and baby have to come first here. Do whatever is required to make sure mum gets as much sleep as she can muster. It might be as simple as not having the radio on in the car, or leaving the telly off at home. Sometimes it can involve finding a quiet corner, a chair and a blanket somewhere in the hospital; which isn’t always as easy as it sounds.
- Tell her she’s beautiful and that you love her. Every day. She will be feeling about as un-beautiful and uncomfortable as can be imaginable. Simple words can be as important sustenance as tea and toast.
- Remind her that her breasts aren’t just milking teats. Remember what you used to do before baby came along? That can help too; in the appropriate time and setting of course.
It’s probably also equally useful to consider what isn’t helpful. In no particular order;
- Ignoring the above advice!
- Creating a sense of undue pressure or guilt through ill-considered commentary or light hearted quips.
- Forgetting that expressing breastmilk or breastfeeding is a private thing. Unless your partner is ok with it, keep the curtains drawn, the unapproved spectators away and think more carefully about photographs and social media posts.
- … and no ‘mooing’ noises, references to milking sheds or calling her ‘Daisy’.
I’m not pretending for a moment that the things a Milky Dad can do to help are on the same level as what Milky Mum can, or of course even in the same ballpark as what the medical professionals do; but it’s still useful. It’s important. It’s appreciated. And it matters.
Milky Mums is a community organisation established to provide support to Mums who are breastfeeding or expressing for premature and seriously ill babies in Australian neonatal intensive care units (NICUs). Learn more about our work at www.milkymums.org.au