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My Wife Won’t Stop Breastfeeding Even Though It’s Crushing Her. Help!

A dad who is watching his wife struggle with breastfeeding asks if it's time to get her to stop.

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Goodfather,

My wife is committed to breastfeeding and I think that’s great. But I also feel like it’s not good for her because she is really struggling with it. Not only is the demand on her time pretty much constant she has gone through mastitis and poor milk production and the whole thing has brought her to tears more times than I can count. I know that stress is bad for parents and babies and I worry that even though breastfeeding is good for our daughter, it’s just too much for her. 

The troubles have really put a strain on our relationship. Our nursing coach does not seem to be helping and I just really feel helpless. She gets sick more often. She is stressed. We can’t make decisions together. We fight. Her work, from what I gather, is suffering.  

But I don’t feel like I can have any say in the whole thing. I’m not the one breastfeeding. It’s her choice but that choice is really affecting our marriage. What the hell can I do? More dishes and cleaning, I guess? It doesn’t really make up for the sleep deprivation or the trouble with milk production or the pain she feels. Is there a way I can convince her it might be time to switch to formula or some way I can help support her breastfeeding more than I am? Help!

Getting the Breast of Me in Denver

 

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I know the very particular feeling of helplessness you are experiencing. My wife breastfed both of our boys despite having some physiological barriers to do so. Like you and your wife we both knew that breastfeeding was crucial, but providing that opportunity for bonding, nutrition, and immune support was physically, emotionally and psychologically draining for both of us — more so, however, for her.

I get that you feel about as useful as a vestigial tail when it comes to breastfeeding. That’s a hard thing to deal with, but it’s also important to keep a sense of perspective about the toll this is taking on your wife too. It’s not for nothing that she’s doggedly pursuing breastfeeding despite the complications. Women are presented time and again with soft-focus depictions of breastfeeding as moms in flowing gowns and flower crowns blissfully breastfeed their child in glowing fields of wheat. When breastfeeding is presented in a way that’s true to life in the media, it’s often in reference to mothers being shamed for feeding their children in public. 

We all know that breast is best, and it undoubtedly is. But if that’s the case and a mother finds herself struggling, even after intervention and coaching, how is she supposed to feel? If she isn’t able to provide what’s “best,” the stage is set for a deep sense of guilt, self-recrimination and low self-esteem. It’s no wonder that your wife is gutting it out. Everything is telling her that stopping breastfeeding is a failure of one of the primary tasks of motherhood.  

As a father, you could never know what that feels like. You can only watch her suffer. And yes, absolutely, that suffering can feel needless and self-inflicted. But it’s also a product of a desire to do what’s best for your daughter as a mother. 

Your best course of action is to redouble your support. Now, when it comes to the repair of relationships, I’m generally an advocate for over-communication. That’s not what I’m going to recommend here, and there’s a very good reason for that. Right now your wife is struggling. The last thing she needs is for you to ask her what you can do to help. For one, she simply may not know. For another, most of the help she needs when it comes to her physical comfort is likely something you can’t necessarily provide. It’s unlikely, for instance, that she’d want you to apply therapeutic creams or balms to her breasts and nipples, for what should be obvious reasons.

Instead, I’m going to suggest that you do what you can to anticipate her needs and help build the structures that she’ll need to be successful in breastfeeding for however long she decides to do so. There are a couple of ways to do this. 

You hinted on a couple of things in your letter. Absolutely you can take on more dish duty and diaper changes to allow her time to recharge. But there’s more you can do that is directly related to breastfeeding. You can help to make sure the space she breastfeeds in is stocked with burpees, magazines, books, and snacks. While she’s feeding you can read to her, or give her a foot massage if she’s down for it. You can make sure the fridge is stocked with cabbage (a well-known and super helpful remedy for sore and swollen breasts) and you can make sure that she remains fully stocked on any creams or medications that she needs. 

Also, keep in mind that a lactation consultant should also be open to talking to you too. You should make it a point to contact her lactation consultant with questions about how you can help your wife. Believe me, they want her to be successful too, so they should have ideas about things you can do to help. That might include “four-hand” breastfeeding where you can help support and position your baby for ease of latching. It might mean making special dinners with ingredients that help boost milk production. 

If you want to help your wife get a bit more rest, and she’s okay with using a breast pump, I’d encourage you to do some bottle feedings at night or in the early morning. Not only does it give you an opportunity to bond with your baby, it also gives your wife time to sleep. 

Doing these things should help you feel less helpless. And by taking on some of these responsibilities you become a defacto home nursing coach and can feel a deeper sense of support. In the end, that’s what you and your wife need to feel. 

Finally, you simply need to double down on kindness, empathy, and understanding. This moment in your marriage and your parenthood will pass, eventually. But you’re right that the decision to continue or stop breastfeeding is not your decision to make. All you can really do is let your wife know that your proud of her and that you will remain proud of her whatever she decides to do. It’s not your job to pressure her one way or another. It’s your job to be in her corner. She needs to know that you love her and what she’s doing for your daughter and she needs to know that no matter what you think she’s an amazing mom.