The transition to fatherhood begins in a context where Canadian mothers are strongly encouraged to breastfeed their babies. While the effects of breastfeeding on the baby and mother are well known, the way fathers experience this form of child feeding are more obscure. Often, the father is presented as playing a supporting role with respect to the mother. While we do not want to deny the importance of this role, we have focused on learning more about fathers' experiences of different forms of child feeding. Three SSHRC-funded studies have been done in relation to this theme since 2004.
Fathers and Child Feeding (Pères et alimentation de l’enfant 1 - PAL 1)
The purpose of the Fathers and Child Feeding (Pères et alimentation de l’enfant 1 - PAL 1) project was to :
1) describe fathers' ideas about breastfeeding
2) identify the effects of breastfeeding on the father's relationship with the child, from the father's point of view
3) identify the support received and desired by fathers experiencing this.
Thirty-six fathers were met, 21 of whom's partner had breastfed for at least six months, and 15 of whom's the baby had been weaned in the first three months (on average at six weeks).
This first study found that, no matter what the form of feeding chosen, the fathers had grasped the social message concerning the benefits of breastfeeding for the mother and child, but had not yet seen the benefits for themselves, aside from those related to family organization. The fathers had different levels of commitment to breastfeeding. For some, it was essential for the child to be fed in that way, whereas others relied on the mother to make the decision to wean. Still others, who were less numerous, did not understand why their spouses went to so much trouble, though they too supported their choice. All of the fathers wanted to be involved with their children, but they received little network support in that sense.
Fathers and Child Feeding (Pères et alimentation de l’enfant 2 - PAL 2)
The purpose of the PAL 2 study was to :
1) examine the nature of the relations between breastfeeding conditions, fathers' psychosocial situations and fathers' experiences during breastfeeding
2) to identify the nature of care and services received and desired by fathers during the breastfeeding experience.
A sample of 285 fathers was met. It comprised 160 fathers with children who had been breastfed for more than six months, 51 fathers who had experienced early weaning of their children even though they had wanted them to continue being breastfed, and a final group of 70 fathers, who had chosen formula. A number of findings emerged from the data, which were gathered through interviews and questionnaires.
Choice of child feeding
While the majority of the fathers reported that the choice of nutrition had been made by both spouses, it was found that it was mainly the mothers who had guided the choice.
The experiences of fathers whose children had been weaned in the first month.
Fathers whose children had undergone early weaning seemed more involved in the child in the first month of life than fathers in either of the other two groups, which can be explained by the intensity of the difficulties encountered in relation to breastfeeding. The difficulties are sometimes sources of major tension within couples, either because the spouses feel unable to meet the challenge of the scope of the requirements related to child feeding, do not agree on solutions, or worry about the health of the child or the mother.
The experiences of fathers whose children were fed formula
Fathers in couples who had chosen to give their baby formula felt that society was passing judgment on their decision, which led them to not seek support from the health care network.
The experiences of fathers whose children were breastfed for more than six months
Social support, perceptions of parental efficacy and anxiety contribute directly to fathers' involvement in the first six months of their children's lives so that the fathers who had less support saw themselves as less competent and were more worried and less involved in their babies. While the fathers of breastfed children generally wanted to be involved with their children, the study showed that women act both as facilitators and obstacles with respect to support for fathers, and that some limit access to the child through breastfeeding.
The fathers as a whole received little support from health care professionals with respect to developing their paternal involvement. The mother-child unit was the main, if not the unique, target for health care. These findings invite health care providers to pay special attention to the way they view the development of fathers and the development of fathers' relationships with their children, as well as the space that they create for fathers to evolve. Thus, the remarks fathers made in the course of this study invite reflection on the following issues: Up to what point do women in contact with such fathers enter into a system of relational proximity with them so as to provide them with competency-developing support, in other words, support that allows them to meet their personal objectives as parents? Is it possible that professional clinical practices with respect to fathers could be directed by fathers so that they would be the main players in their life scenarios? These questions were the topics of a third study, PAL 3, which received financial support from the SSHRC.
The Fathers and Child Feeding (PAL) projects highlighted the involvement of a large proportion of fathers, both with respect to breastfeeding and in their relationships with their children. The projects also shed light on what could be described as fathers' isolation faced with the difficulties that can flow from breastfeeding. One of the main findings of all of the projects was that support for breastfeeding is organized mainly in function of the mechanics of breastfeeding and little attention is given to taking into account mothers' emotional needs, and even less those of fathers. This results in parents becoming isolated, both from professional support that considers all of their experiences, and also, possibly, from one another, as a consequence of accumulated stress. However, the projects showed the intelligence of fathers who succeed in inventing interpersonal conditions (even inside broader social and institutional contexts involving constraints) that favour the implementation of an ethics of human relations. Action strategies to meet fathers' needs were suggested for community organizations and breastfeeding support groups, health care providers in hospitals and clinics, and teachers. Future avenues of research are in the works in order to continue the reflection on the relationships between fathers, mothers, babies and the context of child feeding.
Fatherhood and infant feeding 3 (PAL 3)
The aims of the Fatherhood and infant feeding 3 (PAL 3) study were to:
1) Examine fathers’ and mothers’ ideas about the effects of breastfeeding on their conjugal relationship.
2) Identify the effects of breastfeeding on the relationships fathers develop with their newborn child;
3) Examine fathers’ ideas concerning their coping strategies (including seeking help);
4) Examine how mothers perceive and react to fathers’ coping strategies;
5) Examine the nature of links between personal characteristics (mental health, education level, and adaptation strategies), contextual factors (the breastfeeding experience, fathers’ perceptions of their child and of social support), proximal processes (the conjugal relation and the parental alliance) and the developmental result (father’s involvement).
The project was conducted in three Quebec regions: Outaouais, Laurentides, and La Mauricie. Recruitment, as well as data collection, took place from September 2009 to January 2012. The questionnaire was completed by 220 fathers, while 36 fathers and 36 mothers took part in individual interviews.
Fathers who felt less parental stress were more involved with their children. On the other hand, fathers who reported being more stressed about their role as father felt less competent as parents, which negatively influenced their paternal involvement. Fathers enjoying a higher income felt less competent as parents, while those with a higher level of education felt less stress regarding their parental role. Contrary to the initial hypothesis, fathers having received social support were also those who experienced the most parental stress, which is most likely explained by the fact that they described the support they had received as not very helpful.
Depression and anxiety
According to our study, 8.2% of fathers presented depressive symptoms while children were between the ages of 8 and 14 months. Depressive symptoms were associated with a perinatal loss during a previous pregnancy, parental stress, dealing with a temperamental child, dysfunctional interactions with the child, conjugal dissatisfaction, and with poor self-perception of parental efficacy.
The women in a father’s life (spouses, mothers, and professionals) facilitated or obstructed the fathers’ involvement with their children. Through their behaviours, attitudes, and words, some women included the father within the new family, while others excluded them. Similarly, these behaviours empowered certain fathers, while forcing others to be subordinate. Finally, some fathers reported having the opportunity to experience moments of intimacy with their children, while others felt constantly monitored or even kept at a distance by the women around them.