Study shows fathers are key in supporting breastfeeding and safe sleep

There’s no doubt that dads can play a big role in a baby’s wellbeing, but a new study looking at the role of fathers shows just how impactful their support is in whether a baby is breastfed and put to sleep safely. The findings highlight the significance of incorporating fathers and non-birthing parents in feeding and sleeping decisions—and promoting their education around these important topics, beginning in pregnancy. But the study results are also powerful for another reason: Fathers are often overlooked in parent-focused research, and widening the scope to study the role of fathers as caregivers helps everyone.

How fathers impact breastfeeding and safe sleep

Researchers at Northwestern University and the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago surveyed 250 new fathers in Georgia in the six months after their babies were born. The findings showed that among dads who supported their baby’s mother breastfeeding, 95% reported breastfeeding initiation and 78% were still breastfeeding at eight weeks.

Among those who didn’t have an opinion on breastfeeding or preferred formula, 69% reported breastfeeding initiation and just 33% had babies who were still breastfeeding at eight weeks.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months and continued breastfeeding for at least the first two years of life. But actually meeting those extended breastfeeding goals requires extra support—not just from workplace policies like the PUMP Act, but also at home, from family members.

“Many families do not gain the health benefits from breastfeeding because they are not provided the support to breastfeed successfully,” lead study author John James Parker, MD, said in a press release. “Fathers need to be directly engaged in breastfeeding discussions, and providers need to describe the important role fathers play in breastfeeding success.”

Researchers also found that 99% of fathers reported placing their infant to sleep at some point, but they didn’t always follow the AAP’s most current safe sleep practices. While 81% of dads put their infants on their back to sleep, just 44% avoided soft bedding and only 32% used a firm, flat sleep surface. Just 16% of fathers followed all three safe sleep recommendations, which are vital for reducing the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).

The rates of following these safe sleep practices were lower for Black fathers as compared to white fathers. Nationwide, the rate of SIDS of Black infants is more than twice that of white infants, and unsafe sleep practices may contribute to this disparity, the study authors note.

“Fathers need to receive counseling on all the safe sleep practices for their infants,” said Dr. Parker. “To reduce racial disparities in sudden unexpected infant death [SUID], we need tailored strategies to increase safe infant sleep practices in the Black community, including public campaigns to increase awareness and home visiting programs. These interventions must involve both parents to be most effective.”

Working together to support baby’s health

Fathers who are involved during pregnancy tend to have healthier children and tend to stay more involved in their child’s life in the long term. But some fathers report feeling left out of prenatal or early childhood care decisions, which can leave them feeling more like a helper rather than a primary caregiver.

“The systems of care that serve children and families frequently do not recognize or engage fathers as important and valued caregivers,” write researchers Tova Walsh and Alvin Thomas, who study the role of fathers in child and family well-being, in an op-ed for The Hill. Their own research in Wisconsin has shown that some prenatal care environments often impede rather than facilitate paternal participation.

There are a few ways to bring your partner into the fold when it comes to your baby’s feeding, sleeping and health decisions.

  • Take a baby wellness class together: Setting aside a dedicated time during pregnancy to learn the most current baby wellness and safety practices together will help ensure you’re both on the same page when it comes to baby’s health—and making the most informed decisions for your little one.

  • Create a postpartum plan: There’s no wrong time to work together to create a postpartum plan, even if baby is already born. Sit down to outline how you’ll plan to feed your infant, who will take on the majority of feedings, whether you’ll share night feedings, whether one person will be responsible for washing pump parts and bottles, and the process you’ll use to do so.

  • Set up the nursery: Ensure your infant has at least one safe sleeping space and that you both use it exclusively for all your baby’s naps and nighttime sleeps.

  • Attend your infant’s well-checks together: By both attending your baby’s well-checks at the pediatrician, you’ll get the opportunity to have your questions addressed by an expert–and troubleshoot any issues as a team.