The first night after coming home from the hospital with our newborn son, I remember glaring at my sleeping husband next to me as I tried to get our son to latch — irrationally angry at his useless nipples. As much as I wanted him to help, I didn’t know how to ask him to, or even how a dad — or non-nursing parent — can help with a newborn at night. Often, too, the person in the relationship that didn’t give birth and isn’t breastfeeding may feel like they aren’t able to be as helpful as they want to be. In other words, everyone wants to figure out how dad can help with the baby at night, because getting through the newborn days is definitely a joint effort and you need all hands on deck. It helps to make an agreement during the daylight hours about who is going to do what at night, so you’re not fumbling around and barking orders at each other during that 3 a.m. feed.
And though he didn’t carry the child for nine months, dad’s role is a very important one. There lots of ways that dad can help at night, even if you’re exclusively breastfeeding. Postpartum doulas explain why dad’s role is so important, and how he can help both mom and baby as your family adjusts to life with your new addition.
How involved should dad be with a newborn?
There’s really no limit to how involved a dad can or should be with a newborn baby. Fathers can help with newborns in many, many ways. “A dad should help with their newborn as much as they can. Not only will it increase the bond between the baby and the father, it will be extremely helpful to the birthing parent or mother as they recover,” says Jada Shapiro, postpartum doula, childbirth educator, and lactation counselor in New York City.
How do you share newborn responsibilities at night?
One of the ways that dads can help with a newborn is, indirectly, by finding ways to support their partner, says Regina E. Coley, a birth and postpartum doula. “Dad also needs to take care of mom by helping her with things like cooking meals or cleaning up after dinner so she doesn't have to worry about those things right now. It's important for dad to do these things because mom will need her rest as much as possible during this time so she can recover from giving birth,” Coley says.
Dads can help to make sure mom is eating enough by making sure that easy-to-eat, cut-up, one-handed foods are within reach, or even by literally feeding them if their arms are full while they breastfeed, says Shapiro. Support your partner by holding the baby between feedings so that mom can take time to shower, take a short walk, or even just sit and breathe. “Make sure they are taking naps, and you are giving them space to have a cup of tea or call a dear friend,” Shapiro says. “Dads can offer a massage to help with sore shoulders from extended periods of nursing, too,” she says.
And when in doubt about how you can best get involved? Just ask. Ask questions about what your partner needs, and provide supportive listening without any judgment.
How can dads help breastfeeding moms at night?
Day and night, there are so many ways for dads to help with the baby — even an exclusively breastfed baby. “In the early days, dad can do everything else besides feed the baby (if mom is breastfeeding), including burping the baby after they nurse, changing the baby's diaper, swaddling the baby, soothing them, and helping the baby go back to sleep.” Shapiro says. “Dad can also bring the baby to mom when the baby is hungry, if the mom can’t easily pick them up.” And this extends to nighttime as well. Here are four ways that dads can help with newborns at night:
Get up with baby at night
When the baby cries out in the night, dad can get up with them before tapping mom in. Change a diaper and, if mom hasn’t been asleep for very long yet, maybe do a little soothing before waking mom up to feed. Or, if your baby is bottle fed, go ahead and feed them so mom can keep sleeping.
Make sure mom gets some sleep
In addition to feeding at night, it helps to make sure mom is comfortable — especially in the very earliest days postpartum. “If your partner wakes up in the middle of the night with the baby and needs help getting back to bed (or needs help getting out of bed), it's important that you stay awake until they get settled again so they can get some rest,” says Coley. This is especially important if mom is still healing from labor. If she’s breastfeeding, offer to bring her some water, or even a snack.
Taking turns with nighttime diaper changes is a wonderful thing to do for mom, but it’s also a great bonding opportunity for dad and baby, says Coley. It gives dad an opportunity to hold their newborn and spend some one-on-one time communicating with this new family member. Maybe he can even enjoy a little skin-to-skin time after the diaper change, too.
Comfort the baby and put them back to sleep
If mom seems to be having trouble getting the baby to settle down, or she somehow sleeps through the first cry, dads can take the opportunity to get up and comfort the baby while mom sleeps. This is also a great bonding opportunity for dad and baby.
Even if your baby is exclusively breastfed, dads can help a lot with night feeds.
Does your partner help with night feeds?
If dad won't help with baby — or isn’t sure how to help out — they absolutely can and should. Sometimes, it can be hard to start a conversation about sharing the work of parenting, but you might as well start now — the question of how to equally share the load is simply part of being a parent. In my case, my husband often did a night feeding using a bottle of pumped milk.
Having a baby and becoming parents requires team effort. Even if dad can’t feed the baby, he absolutely can help with diaper changes, comforting, and getting up with the baby while mom gets some much needed rest. Perhaps he can even give her a shoulder massage as she’s breastfeeding for the millionth time that night. Not only will this help comfort her tense shoulders, but it will comfort mom and make her feel like she’s not alone — and that’s possibly the most important thing new dads can do.
Jada Shapiro, postpartum doula, childbirth educator, and lactation counselor and founder of boober
Regina E. Coley, a birth and postpartum doula