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Dads Might Be Able to Breastfeed Their Kids Soon. Should They?

Product design is on the cusp of overcoming the biology of breastfeeding. Will more dads be chestfeeding in the near future?

Breastfeeding their baby, Kaya, was a team effort for Keegan, a 28-year-old father in Philadelphia, and his wife, Auldyn, also 28. Keegan cheered his wife on, brought Kaya to her in bed so she didn’t have to get up to feed her, sourced salve for her nipples, kept her water bottle nearby, and fed his wife, who was often ravenous while breastfeeding their daughter. When Kaya was 3 months old, Auldyn went back to work, and Keegan took on the responsibilities of a stay-at-home dad.

It was a big adjustment for the whole family, but particularly for Keegan. Even though he sometimes bottle fed his daughter in her first few months, he didn’t feel the same deep bond Auldyn experienced breastfeeding. And he was now tasked with getting Kaya adjusted to his new role as her sole daytime food source.

“Kaya was not smiling at me the same way she smiled at Auldyn because she didn’t have the same association with me, which was really hard,” Keegan says. “Biologically, she is attached to her mother in a different way, and it took a while before she started seeing me as a comforting figure. I had to work on building my own bond with her.”

Despite its many benefits, breastfeeding can be a source of stress for many parents. Breast milk is free, considered healthier for babies than formula, and helps parents bond with their children, which are a few of the reasons for the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendation that babies be breastfed exclusively for their first six months.

But that timeline often proves difficult, if not impossible, for many parents. In addition to mothers who might have trouble breastfeeding for a variety of reasons, gay male parents, adoptive parents, and trans parents might not be able to breastfeed their babies without medical intervention. The current “breast is best” emphasis on — one might even say zeal for — the practice can make them feel like they and their babies will miss out if they can’t breastfeed.

It’s not surprising, then, that breastfeeding is becoming part of the conversation as parental roles evolve. Fathers generally are more involved in parenting than in generations past, and there’s growing awareness and acceptance of the idea of a gender spectrum rather than a sharp delineation between just two genders. Within this discussion a question has arisen: Should men be given the means to breastfeed? Why not?

Japanese design company Dentsu posed those questions during a SXSW-festival demonstration last month of its “Father’s Nursing Assistant.” The product is a wearable pair of synthetic breasts; breast milk or formula is loaded into one breast and the baby feeds from the other. The device records how much the baby eats and sends the data to parents’ smart phones.

Although the demonstration generated a lot of buzz, the product hasn’t been manufactured and likely never will be. It was one of four designs in the company’s “Pointless Brings Progress” project (another was digitized sushi). On its website, the company describes the project designs as “so novel that they go beyond a modern sense of value” and continues: “For this very reason, however, these ideas can trigger future innovation.” (Dentsu did not respond to an interview request.)

In fact, a product that would enable men to chestfeed, played for laughs 15 years ago in Meet the Fockers, is close to becoming a reality. And demand for it might be higher than you’d think. A graduate design project by Marie-Claire Springham, the award-winning Chestfeeding Kit includes a compression vest and pump that helps parents lactate. If they need to, parents take hormones before the baby’s birth, and can switch off pumping and feeding as they choose.

“It’s a very simple pump design to make it all seem less alien,” Springham says. “That’s all it’s supposed to do: break down barriers between dads and babies.”

Springham’s conceptual design was only meant to raise questions about gender and parenting roles but has since blown up with demands for the product to be put into production, she says. Her earliest inquiries were from trans parents interested in chestfeeding. Then she began hearing from mothers struggling to breastfeed. More recently, the emails have been coming from cisgender dads.

“Usually, these are not first-time dads but fathers expecting their second or third child,” she says. “They saw how mom struggled with breastfeeding their first baby and the stress it caused.”

In a recent UK survey, parents said that difficulty breastfeeding was a significant factor in mothers’ postpartum depression. Helping mothers with breastfeeding, which any parent can tell you is difficult and demanding even in ideal circumstances, is one reason Springham wants her device to be available to the public. But she’s also interested in breaking down gender barriers and helping fathers bond with their children in a meaningful way.

For example, she learned from childcare experts that smell is the first sense a baby develops, and that they’re attracted to the smell of breast milk.

“I’ve heard heartfelt accounts about fathers all ready to be Super Dad but the baby is not interested, because only Mom smells like breast milk,” she says.

Her device would make it possible for both parents to engage with their babies that way and feel equally important, she says.

“What I’ve heard from dads is not so much that they envied their partners’ ability to breastfeed but that they miss the intimacy that mums have breastfeeding their babies,” she says. “The focus has always been on the intimacy between the mother and baby, but I don’t think it’s because intimacy between fathers and babies doesn’t exist. It’s difficult for new fathers; there aren’t that many role models for them.”

It’s hard to argue that most parenting information isn’t geared toward moms. Renowned chef Jose Andres, for example, described in a recent episode of the Death, Sex & Money podcast how he felt the need to Google “how to be a father.”

“There are greater expectations today for dad to be present, but maybe not always recognition about how novel a task it is for them,” says New York City psychologist Julia Vigna Bosson, Ph.D.

Breastfeeding classes in particular can be alienating for new dads, as well as other parents unable to lactate without intervention. Keegan and Auldyn say that even though the breastfeeding class they attended was split down the middle between expectant moms and dads, there was no mention of fathers in the curriculum until Auldyn asked what they should do when she returned to work and Keegan would be on his own.

“It was all about mothers. There was no portion in which they talked about how your partner could support you,” Auldyn says. “I’m happy we live in time in which people are advocating for public breastfeeding and getting partners more involved, but how are they talking to LGBT or adoptive parents?”

Preserving breastfeeding as a space only for cis women is antiquated, says Brian Salmon, certified lactation counselor and co-author of The Birth Guy Book.

“It’s a family and it should be a team,” Salmon says. “But as I say in my birth classes, whatever works. It’s your baby and your decision. If you want to chestfeed, do it. If you want to bottle feed, do it.”

Salmon and Springham agree that whether parents want to breastfeed, chestfeed, or bottle feed really comes down to personal preference. The main goal, simply, is that your baby doesn’t go hungry. They say no one should feel pressured to chestfeed rather than bottle feed.

“Some people are just more naturally nurturing than others,” Salmon says. “Feeding your baby via a direct connection to your body might be more satisfying for some people, but not for everyone.”

In addition, the benefits that makers of some of these breastfeeding simulators promote can be achieved without devices, Bosson says.

“You still can have skin-to-skin contact and direct gazing,” Bosson says. “What’s important is undistracted feeding and individualized attention, which can be achieved with bottle feeding.”

Some critics, in fact, question spending time and energy developing products to help men breastfeed when we’re still fighting to normalize breastfeeding among mothers. Is it paradoxically cynical that an idea so progressive on its face implies that breastfeeding might not be considered normal and acceptable until men want to do it, too?

“I feel like they’re a product of today’s culture that demonizes bottle feeding. I can’t understand how a product that has fake boobs on it would allow a father to bond with a child any more than cuddling your baby while bottle feeding,” says D.R., a mother of two who asked to be identified by her initials only.

“Bottle feeding gives dads and grandparents the opportunity for bonding while feeding babies, too,” she continues. “Moms get so much bonding time throughout pregnancy and birth that I wanted my husband to bond as much as he could once our children were born.”

Fathers are the first to teach babies that food and love are not connected, notes Andrea Tran, RN, an international board-certified lactation consultant. They don’t have to breastfeed to forge a strong bond with their babies, she says.

“There are so many other things they can do — just laying there skin-to-skin is incredibly important,” Tran says. “Create something special to their relationship, such as bathing the baby or infant massage, that’s meaningful to them.”

Being an involved parent shouldn’t make dads feel like they have to mimic mothers, adds Craig Garfield, MD, a professor of pediatrics at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

“I’m all for equality among parents, but there are myriad ways for dads to get involved and be supportive,” Garfield says. “In the big picture, there are lots of great outcomes for kids when dads get involved in ways in which they feel comfortable and confident.”

Keegan figured out how to create a closer bond with Kaya, who’s now 8 months old. Feeding her skin-to-skin and babywearing helped her adjust, he says, as did taking a break from social media so he could be more present with her. Kaya got used to being carried around the house in a sling and now loves “having her own agency while being with me,” Keegan says.

He and Auldyn joke that he’s more naturally maternal than she is.

“I’m not stuck in the biology of it,” Auldyn says. “Maybe Keegan and I are just super progressive, but I don’t feel as tied to my ability to give birth and breastfeed as some other women do. Yes, it’s cool and valuable, but I offer more than that, and I’m happy to share those experiences.”

She points out that society has accepted the idea that she can be the primary breadwinner for her family, so why can’t her husband comfort her child via simulated breastfeeding? Which, by the way, Keegan says he’s open to trying. And he expects the idea of it will become more acceptable in the next couple of generations if not sooner.

“I hope that in the future people can just set up the responsibilities of taking care of a child based on who wants to take on the task,” Auldyn says, “not who has the biology to support it.”