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I recently read a New York Times opinion piece by a new dad who shares the positive impact switching to formula feeding had on him and his family: greater bonding and the establishment of “an equality and a peace in our home that seemed impossible in those first hellish weeks.” As someone who exclusively breastfed my daughter for a year, it was enlightening to read this perspective. But I also wondered whether fathers of breastfed babies could participate, too. Isn’t there a way to empower partners and achieve more equality within families that want to breastfeed?

As we get ready for our second child this fall, my husband and I have been talking about what we might want to do differently this time around. There are parts of breastfeeding that I enjoyed, and I want to do it again with my second baby. But the biological reality of breastfeeding places a huge physical and mental strain on women, and figuring out how to share this responsibility is not always intuitive.

Exacerbating this burden is the fact that paid parental leave in the United States is still not guaranteed, and even more rare for non-birthing partners. Many employers assume parental leave is primarily about a mother’s physical recovery, not sharing caregiving for a new, helpless human. It’s really about both. My husband had only 10 days of paternity leave, and four days were eaten up by the hospital stay. This inequality in leave policies contributes to the systemic inequality across our workplaces and to the well-researched motherhood wage gap.

While we continue to push for the changes necessary to support families, I talked to several parents and a few professionals about what breastfeeding moms can do to get the support they need during a physically and mentally exhausting time. Here are four lessons I learned.

Consider pumping early on to buy yourself some freedom and rest.

With my daughter, I was committed to doing everything as “naturally” as possible. To me, that meant nursing on demand and avoiding the pump as long as I could (frankly, I was scared of it). Only months later did I realize that while pumping is annoying and can be uncomfortable, it can also give you some freedom. Enabling a partner, family member or friend to give the baby a bottle of pumped breast milk can give mom the space she is craving to sleep, exercise, get out of the house or just take a break.

Many breastfeeding mothers may worry that introducing a bottle too soon will disrupt the nursing relationship, causing the dreaded “nipple confusion.” It’s more likely the case that once nursing is established, typically after two to three weeks, you can start to pump. Many babies will successfully switch back and forth between breast and bottle.

One of the most anxiety-provoking questions for new mothers is how to find the time to pump, given the erratic schedule of a newborn. Julie Lundy, founder of The Maternity Planner, a service to help women through pregnancy and early parenthood, offered some ideas. “Pump at 9:30 a.m. and 9:30 p.m. Typically, babies take a morning nap, and then if your baby is going to sleep around 8 or 8:30, pump at 9:30 and go to bed at 10. Then that bottle can be used for the next feed around 1 to 2 a.m., which your partner can do.”

This routine can give you one to two extra bottles a day, which will enable you and your partner to share the load during the day or night. This approach can also help you build up a reserve if you’re a mom who is returning to work.

Make a plan to get enough sleep.

As an infant, my daughter slept in two- to three-hour increments. I ran on adrenaline for about three months before I crashed and burned. Exhausted and desperate, I cried inconsolably every morning for four days in a row while my daughter screamed in her bassinet and refused to nap. Realizing that something had to change, I hired a postpartum doula during the day to help me get some unbroken sleep. Taking a four-hour nap while the doula fed my daughter a bottle and magically lulled her to sleep was exactly what I needed to feel like a human again. If hiring someone is not an option, hopefully your partner or a family member or friend can help.

It turns out there is something special about a four-hour chunk of sleep. Lauren Smith Brody, author of “The Fifth Trimester,” says this is because four hours gets you two full REM cycles.

“There needs to be one four-hour stretch in there for your body and brain to work properly the next day,” she says. Even if you are on leave and your partner is not, don’t feel bad about asking your partner to take one of the night feeds.

“Taking care of a tiny human is work and does count, and you need to be as rested as you can be.”

One mother I interviewed, Sara Bliss, who lives in New York City, emphasized that letting dads take on night feeds can also improve the father-baby bond; dads may feel left out by the nursing relationship. “My husband would do a bottle feed in the middle of the night so that I could sleep from 11 p.m. to 4 a.m., and he would take that 1 a.m. or 2 a.m. feed,” Bliss says. “It was amazing, because I got that long stretch to rest.” That night bottle-feeding became her husband’s special time with their son.

For some families, hiring a night nurse proves invaluable. I wondered how this works if a mother already has to wake up to breastfeed anyway, so I spoke to Haleigh Haggerton Almquist, CEO of a night nurse agency in Washington, D.C.

She described a typical night with a breastfeeding mother: “We’ll bring baby in to nurse, and if mom needs anything, like a glass of water or a snack, we are there to grab what she needs. When she’s done, we get the baby diaper changed, swaddled and back down to sleep.” Meanwhile, mom “is able to go right back to sleep and maximize that two- to three-hour window, when every minute of extra sleep can help.”

While a night nurse is a significant expense, Haggerton Almquist told me some parents choose to register so family and friends can donate toward hiring a night nurse instead of gifting toys or clothes for a new baby. Many night nurses are also certified lactation consultants. When nursing just isn’t working at 3 a.m., it can be a dark time for everyone involved — having a pro around can help.

The writer and her daughter. (Becca Allen Photography)
The writer and her daughter. (Becca Allen Photography)

Seek help with everything unrelated to breastfeeding.

When Newton, Mass., mom Stephanie Kaplan Lewis’s daughter was born early and spent time in the neonatal intensive care unit, her husband, Jason, defaulted to doing all non-breastfeeding related tasks.

“I was exclusively pumping, and it was exhausting. I pumped and sat in the NICU with her, and he did everything else,” she says. “Because she was unexpectedly early, we hadn’t set up anything yet. He would deal with cleaning the pump parts, the laundry, the housework, setting up her room and everything else.”

Her husband, an ER doctor who worked on shifts, also became the default “baby soother” and would help keep their daughter occupied when they were both at home, so that Kaplan Lewis, an entrepreneur, could keep up with running her business.

“The first pass at consoling her is his,” she says.

“He has to get creative and figure out other ways [to soothe her besides nursing]. He’s really good about going out and doing errands with her; he’ll dance around and sing with her. Mostly he tries to get her out of the house and get stuff done while still taking care of her.”

Dan Rabinovitz, father to 2-year old Jay and 4-month old Sadie, says that since Sadie arrived, he essentially runs the house and has become the primary caregiver for Jay, which has strengthened their father-son relationship.

He says his wife “almost never changes a diaper of our toddler’s. In the first month she didn’t change any of Sadie’s diapers either. She’s taken on all the Sadie stuff. But I do all the shopping, food preparation, a ton of cleaning, Jay’s bottles, and I’ll do Sadie’s bottles too once she starts with that. I do the laundry, and make sure there are sleep sacks and sheets that are clean. Once Sadie starts at day care, I’ll prepare her bottles for day care.”

When asked if he had advice for new dads, Rabinovitz, who lives in Washington D.C., shared this: “Especially while your wife is breastfeeding, go around the house and figure out what needs to be done. Dads should do as much as possible to think about the needs of their wives and think about what they can do to help, but also have discussions where you ask your wife what else you can do, what would lessen her load.”

Constantly reevaluate the plan with your partner.

The parents I spoke to reported that productive conversations were triggered by a new baby’s arrival, the end of maternity leave, a new job opportunity that would be more demanding, or some other major life change like moving homes. While these disruptive events force conversations, creating the space in your day-to-day life to more proactively communicate can diffuse tensions and help you both feel like you’re on the same team.

My friend Kate Growley and her husband debrief every day about what went well and what could be improved. Often, the conversation focuses on how they are both going to advance their careers while sharing the caregiving of their toddler.

“We don’t have an agenda, it’s a really organic conversation,” she says. “As she gets older and has different needs and new challenges, we are constantly reevaluating and being supportive of one another.”

Most importantly, she says they are always open to hearing when the other needs help.

One of my biggest parenting lessons I’ve learned is that sometimes I get too exhausted to be the kind of mother I want to be. In those moments, I need to figure out how to adjust and ask for help, which does not come naturally for me. A baby’s habits and needs will change every few months, and so will yours — it’s critical to also pay attention to your own needs. What works one week may not work the next. Embracing an iterative approach with your partner helps ensure that you and your baby are getting what you each need at different stages.

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