What if men can breastfeed?

Date

Lauren Smelcher Sams

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In her recently published book Lean In, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg wrote of her struggle to balance work and family commitments, saying, “I have breastfed two children and noted, at times with great disappointment, that this was simply not something my husband was equipped to do”.

I thought little of this quote, or breastfeeding in general, until I had a baby of my own. I had no concept of how breastfeeding would affect my life. Our now six-month-old daughter was less than an hour old when I first fed her, and I’ve done so every three to four hours, on average, ever since. Luckily I enjoy breastfeeding and haven’t experienced any real setbacks, but sometimes I lament that its solely my parental burden – and pleasure – often saying to my husband, “I wish you could do this too.”

So why can’t he?

Physiologically, it is possible. There have been numerous documented cases of male lactation – as far back as the 1850s and as recently as 2002, when a Sri Lankan man made headlines for breastfeeding his two children after his wife passed away.

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As anthropologist Professor Patty Stuart Macadam pointed out in 1996, “a breast is a breast.” Female milk production is stimulated by hormones that increase during pregnancy – but it’s not the only way to do it. In 1997, Pulitzer Prize winner Jared Diamond wrote of a future in which men could and would lactate, saying, “Soon, some combination of manual nipple stimulation and hormone injections may develop the confident expectant father’s latent potential to make milk.” He added that it would not surprise him to see some of his younger colleagues nursing their children in the future. Slate.com writer Michael Thomsen documented his attempts to lactate in a 2011 article. He used a breast pump every three hours for two months to stimulate production of the hormone prolactin. And while artificial stimulation didn’t work for him, a hungry infant’s sucking reflex is all it took for the Sri Lankan widower.

The benefits of breastfeeding are numerous and well-documented – for both baby and mother, so why not the father too? It enables a unique type of bonding that, until you have experienced it yourself, is hard to articulate. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to share that with our partners? And wouldn’t it be fantastic to share this often overwhelming, tiring task more equally? For mothers with mastitis, an incredibly painful bacterial infection of the breast, having another set of mammaries available would be a Godsend. Hell, for mothers who just want to go out and have a few drinks after nine months of sobriety (without the hassle of expressing or preparing formula), having Dad breastfeed would be incredible. And in the most unfortunate of circumstances, like those of the young family in Sri Lanka, babies could still be nursed by a biological parent. Wealthy women used to pay wet nurses – usually strangers - to breastfeed their children, so why not fathers? Could it be the step we need to become more equitable parents – sharing middle-of-the-night feeds, alternating daytime feeds and even allowing more women to head back into the workforce quicker and with less guilt?

Male nursing has been a crucial step toward equitable parenting for the Aka pygmy tribe of Central Africa. American anthropologist Barry Hewlett, who lived with and studied the tribe, noted that the men and women shared nursing duties and therefore had egalitarian parenting down to an art. Aka fathers are within reach of their infants 47 per cent of the time – more than any other cultural group on the planet. While the Aka still have some traditionally gendered labour division, there is no stigma in swapping roles if necessary. “Aka fathers will slip into roles usually occupied by women without second thought, without any loss of status,” says Hewlett.

And there’s the rub. The issue of status and the equal valuing of men’s and women’s work is key. It may be possible for men to breastfeed (and yes, their milk is nutritionally similar to womens’), but it’s seen as a bridge too far in the gender divide, and so not taken seriously, encouraged or explored. When I mentioned the idea to friends, the invariable response was laughter. But why is the concept deemed so absurd? It’s 2013. We expect men to be competent, capable fathers who do their fair share, just as women have always been expected to do. The assumption that women should ‘naturally’ have a greater interest in parenting and all the tasks that come with it is an outdated one. While pregnant, my husband and I often joked that since I alone had carried the baby for nine months, he should carry her for the next nine – and if he could have breastfed her, he would have.

The Aka have figured out that it doesn’t really matter who does the parenting work, as long as it gets done. Meanwhile Australian stay-at-home mums overwhelmingly outnumber stay-at-home dads (426,700 mums compared to 39,300 dads), and even when both parents do work outside the home, it’s still mainly mum who does most of the housework.

That this workload leaves little time for formulating alternative, more equitable arrangements is an irony not lost on even the weariest new mum – and encouraging men to breastfeed may be at the end of a long list of more achievable compromises, if it makes the list at all. But if we’re determined to share the work – and pleasures – of parenting equally, perhaps it should. 

20 comments

  • I must say I think this article is ridiculously poorly thought out.

    Your particular group of friends found it laughable. OK - so, what, your friends are a representative sample of society? Maybe you just need more open minded friends.

    The problem with male breastfeeding is not some cultural issue, some devaluing of womens work, some attempt to diminish women. The problem is that male lactation is rare. Perhaps it would be possible to force male bodies to lactate with a pleasant cocktail of hormones - personally, though, I don't see how that could be seen as being particularly healthy, and the detrimental effects on both the man and (possibly) the baby probably outweigh the benefits obtained from being 'able to share night time feeds' and a woman somehow being able to go back to work faster because she only has to feed half as often (don't think you've thought this through very well).

    Two final points. First, as a man who took extended leave to care for my son after my wife went back to work, I can tell you that the people with the 'outdated' attitude about women being more interested in or with more natural instincts in parenting are usually women. As a white man I've rarely experienced discrimination, except by women who don't think I'm able to look after a baby as well as they could.

    Second, if you've ever had mastitis, you'd know that the recommended treatment, other than antibiotics if necessary, is to feed your baby from the affected breast, as often as possible. Not pump. Not get your lactating partner to do it. Get your baby to drain the breast. Seriously - if you're going to write on an issue, at least understand it.

    Commenter
    Aaron
    Date and time
    July 08, 2013, 9:06AM
    • it sounds weird to me, but i'm open to the idea. i don't know how i would cope seeing a dad dropping out a milk laden breast for a baby feed in the shopping centre. i would hate to embarrass him with a nervous giggle. i suppose once you saw a few of them doing it, it would be normalised pretty quickly. but i have to admit i would jealously guard that time as my own. it was an amazing bonding experience to know you sustained a beautiful baby's life for a brief period.
      I don't know if men would actually want to do it if there was a real choice. I could actually see it being a huge point of friction in our society with the way it is now. Men who are scared of equality would be panicking about it. Can you imagine tony abbott breastfeeding?

      Commenter
      Bel
      Date and time
      July 08, 2013, 9:28AM
      • I am all for equality that is conservative and stereotyped.

        Share the housework as equally as possible. Buy hygiene products and contraception including the pill as often as possible for her.

        I would even consider taking a male pill if available.

        Some things are fantastic the way they are. You want change? Wait a few generations for this one.

        But breastfeed my son? On the worksite? Ummmm...nup.

        "Sorry blokes, gotta take 30 to let my baby boy tit suck some lunch out of the old man.."

        Call me whatever, it ain't gonna happen. Like watching 2 blokes tongue kiss and do the horizontal tango will never make me want to either. It's that sort of reaction.

        Commenter
        Nice Try
        Location
        But Seriously?
        Date and time
        July 08, 2013, 1:33PM
    • Oh God, could Daily Life get any more facile?

      Commenter
      I enjoy masculinity
      Date and time
      July 08, 2013, 9:45AM
      • Absolutely fascinating. It makes me wonder what else our bodies are capable of but never allowed to perform because of patriarchal constraint and gender stereotyping.

        Commenter
        Shelby
        Date and time
        July 08, 2013, 9:48AM
        • Or, you know...biology. There are no straight lines, but there's a pretty big area in the middle where people are more or less homogenous within their sex. Male lactation is no more something men refuse to do because of culture than growing a beard to your belt line is something women refuse to do because of culture. Can some women do it? No doubt! Is it "normal" (that is, biologically possible for most women)? No!

          Not everything is a conspiracy, much as gender studies courses would like to paint it as such.

          Commenter
          Tim the Toolman
          Date and time
          July 08, 2013, 10:29AM
        • Tooldude why the rabid, angry denial of the possibility of male lactation in the face of absolutely zero evidence? A woman being able to grow a beard to her belly button would be interesting, but hardly as useful as being able to feed an actual human being. Don't be so dismissive. I would love to see this phenomenon fully explored. Do you not realise that this would make men a whole lot more important?

          Commenter
          Shelby
          Date and time
          July 08, 2013, 11:21AM
        • Agree with Tim. I've always thought gender studies classes should be accompanied by biology classes because it seems that science gets completely ignored in gender discussions all too often.

          Commenter
          Mellah
          Date and time
          July 08, 2013, 11:26AM
        • I'm hoping Shelby's comment was tongue in cheek.

          Commenter
          Mike basil
          Location
          Hobart
          Date and time
          July 08, 2013, 11:35AM
        • Right. So "patriarchal constraint and gender stereotyping" are the reason men can't breastfeed eh? Whatever planet you're on I'm sure they've run out of tinfoil.

          Commenter
          Dirk Dredd
          Date and time
          July 08, 2013, 12:04PM

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