When April Neubauer suffered seizures during her labour, and again during her emergency cesarean birth, she was taken away for further treatment and recovery, having not yet held her daughter.

According to her father, Maxamillian:

“A nurse came out with our beautiful baby girl. We went to the nursery, I sat down and took off my shirt for some skin-to-skin time. The nurse said we needed to get her a little formula and do some finger feeding, just something to get her started. Then the nurse asked if maybe I would like to throw a nipple on and do some real breastfeeding. Me being a big joker with the ability to try just about anything once, I said sure, why not.”

The nurse attached a plastic nipple shield with a tube that was linked to formula-filled syringe to Maxamillian’s chest.

“I’ve never breastfed or even thought in a thousand years I would. I was the first to breast feed the baby!”

Over the last few days, I’ve watched these pictures shared over and over among breastfeeding groups and well beyond, accompanied by commentary such as ‘Talk about an awesome dad’, ‘What a supportive partner’, ‘So glad he was willing, awesome for everyone’, and my favourite, ‘So cool…way to go dad and way to go nurse. And mama you did a great job too.”

I have felt increasingly disturbed by how uncritically this has all been reported and shared, particularly among breastfeeding advocates. I was particularly stunned to watch as a colleague experienced a snide pile-on in a lactation forum for suggesting that the nipple shield/supply line/formula set up, unnecessarily complicated the first feed and introduced risks to establishing the breastfeeding relationship of the mother-baby dyad. Seriously, can we wait to hand out the invitations to the DUDE BREASTFED HIS BABY party before we have even asked:

  • Was there clinical indication that a supplementary feed was necessary?
  • Was maternal consent sought in administering formula, and/or allowing another person to simulate breastfeeding with her daughter?
  • Was the option to use mother’s own colostrum or donor milk considered?
  • If supplementation was indicated, why was use of a nipple shield and SNS considered appropriate to prefer over finger or syringe feeding, both of which have an established basis in evidence and practice?
  • Were the risks of nipple/flow confusion discussed with either or both parents?
  • Were the risks of formula use discussed with either or both parents?

It’s also crucial to point out that the positioning of the baby in the pictures is about as far from optimal as you can get. There is no ‘chest to chest, chin to breast’ here – baby’s face is pressed into her father’s pectoral muscle to the point where her nose is not visible, and his hand is positioned at the back of her head rather than supporting her at the neck. These are ingredients which are well known to trigger breast averse behaviour in newborns and if the attention had been on establishing actual breastfeeding rather than playing with a super rad epically killer feeding set up, somebody in the room might have pointed this out.

But it’s a big maybe. Because one of the biggest things that this photo reveals is just how widespread our unquestioning acceptance of high tech birth and infant feeding has become. This scenario – the mother-baby dyad separated, industrial milk for the first taste, plastic instead of human skin – is not just for emergencies. This is how thousands of babies enter the world every day. The baseline for normal birth (and the first breastfeed as part of the continuum of birth), particularly in WEIRD* countries, has been shifted to a point where it’s almost unrecognisable. The mother rendered invisible, the baby off to the bottom right corner somewhere, ‘at least you’ve got a healthy baby’.

According to the nurse who suggested this method of feeding, “she’s asked fathers to try the device many times before, but Maxamillian was the first to agree to try it out.”

What the fresh heck is going on in this hospital? Where a nurse has been regularly stepping in to situations where a mother has been separated from her baby postpartum, offering fathers in a very vulnerable situation the chance to feed their baby formula using an improvised feeding device. This is not innovation, it’s recklessness, and staggeringly disrespectful of the relationship between a mother and her baby following a traumatic birth.

The nurse again: “I hope it encourages other healthcare providers to recognize the role that dads play in the breastfeeding journey.” No, no, no! There are already too many barriers to breastfeeding as it is; the bloody last thing families need is for healthcare providers to invest in another one.

We desperately need to involve dads and partners in breastfeeding. It’s commendable that this man was willing to step out of his comfort zone in order to do what was presented as best for his daughter. He is one of many men breaking down a mould of fatherhood in which dads are uninvolved and incompetent. He doesn’t baulk at the idea of putting his child to his breast or consider it too much of a threat to his masculinity that other men might know that he did (ok, ok, let’s all agree to pretend that he didn’t invent the execrable term ‘moob’).

But. There is stepping up, and there is stepping over. The role of dads and partners in supporting breastfeeding is not just to hand them their baby and some formula and say ‘you can feed her too’. Rather – the role of dads and partners is to become literate in the needs of a breastfeeding dyad and do whatever it takes to get those needs adequately met. We need dads to be equipped and empowered to say ‘why is this necessary’ and ‘what is the evidence for that’ and ‘no, we don’t agree to this intervention at this point’.

Bet that wouldn’t go viral, though.

*Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic