Jeremy Davis made sure his wife, Chloe, got lots of support when she was breastfeeding each of their three sons.

“When she’d been up nursing all night, I’d take over with the baby in the mornings so she could get extra sleep,” the Wilton, Conn., man recalled. Davis also learned to give special breastfeeding massages to help with milk flow and took on middle-of-the-night diaper duty.

Now, a new survey finds that all this help from dad can set mom and baby up for success.

When dads wanted their infant’s mother to breastfeed, moms were more likely to do so and to do so for longer periods. In addition, dads can help promote safe sleeping practices such as placing the baby on its back to prevent sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).

“Fathers make major contributions to the health of their families by supporting breastfeeding and adhering to safe sleep practices,” said study author Dr. John James Parker. He is an instructor of pediatrics at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, a pediatrician at Lurie Children’s, and an internist at Northwestern Medicine in Chicago.

“Fathers are an important audience for health promotion campaigns, and clinicians and health care providers need to engage fathers and discuss all the ways that fathers can be helpful with an infant,” Parker added.

For the study, Parker and his colleagues surveyed 250 new dads around two to six months after the birth of their infant. When fathers wanted their infant’s mother to breastfeed, 95% of moms did, and 78% reported that mom was still breastfeeding at eight weeks. By contrast, when dads had no opinion or didn’t want mom to breastfeed, 69% of moms did, and only 33% were still breastfeeding at eight weeks, the study found.

What can dads do to help breastfeeding moms? Lots, Parker said.

“They can provide nutrition for mothers and make sure that she has what she needs to be rested and breastfeed,” he said. “Breastfeeding is a team effort, and fathers make a large contribution to the success of breastfeeding.”

But that wasn’t the only way dads can help.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that infants sleep on their backs on an approved sleep surface without soft bedding.

Fully 99% of dads said they placed their infant to sleep, but only 16% implemented all three of these AAP-recommended infant sleep practices. Almost one-third of fathers didn’t do at least one key component of the three safe sleep practices, the study showed.

The survey also revealed some disparities among dads.

Black dads were less likely to use the back sleep position and more likely to use soft bedding than white fathers were, the survey showed. Back sleeping can dramatically reduce the risk of SIDS. Black infants are twice as likely to die from SIDS as white infants. It’s possible unsafe sleep practices may contribute to this disparity, the study authors said.

When it comes to safe sleep for infants, dads should be directly engaged in discussions about the safest way and safest place for infants to sleep, Parker said.

The good news is that dads are much more involved now than in generations past.

“One main driving force is gender equality in the workplace and recognizing that women are equal and extremely valuable employees in many fields,” he said.

“Dads should express how proud [they are] of their partners for giving birth and breastfeeding, and conversely the mothers need to be really proud of fathers and say how meaningful it is for them to be there and support their family,” Parker said.

In the study, researchers used a new survey tool called Pregnancy Risk Assessment Monitoring System (PRAMS) for Dads, which was modeled after a similar tool used to survey moms. Now, the team plans to survey fathers in other stages and look at how dads’ involvement affects their health and well-being.

The study was published online June 16 in the journal Pediatrics.

These findings reflect what Dr. Jessica Nash, a pediatrician at Children’s National in Washington, D.C., sees in her practice.

“When fathers are involved in infant feeding practices, there is better success and more support for the mother, which we know improves breastfeeding outcomes,” she said.

It’s not just fathers’ attitudes and support of breastfeeding that can fuel success. “Other support members, grandmothers, other family members, peers or knowing others who breastfeed can improve outcomes,” Nash added.

Some obstacles remain, including lack of education about breastfeeding benefits and lack of breastfeeding support in terms of parental leave or community support, she noted.

There’s lots for new dads to do, Nash stressed.

“Fathers can burp the baby after feeds, support mom with positioning, and help with some cleaning or cooking if time allows. Also skin-to-skin is equally important with father and mother,” she said. “I think a father’s role of reinforcing that mom and baby are doing great is critical.”

The health benefits of breastfeeding extend to the whole family.

“Research shows breastfeeding protects against illnesses like asthma, obesity, upper respiratory infections, and diabetes and other chronic illnesses, which could correlate to less time off from work due to illness, which could impact work and family life,” Nash said.

More information

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has tips on how dads can better support breastfeeding moms.

SOURCES: John James Parker, MD, instructor of pediatrics, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, pediatrician, Lurie Children’s, and internist, Northwestern Medicine, Chicago; Jessica Nash, MD, pediatrician, Children’s National, Washington, D.C.; Jeremy Davis, Wilton, Conn.; Pediatrics, June 16, 2023, online