22 Aug

Can a man breastfeed? Supporting breastfeeding LGBTQ families

Dr BJ Epstein is Senior Lecturer in Literature at University of East Anglia and a Counsellor on our National Breastfeeding Helpline. In this guest blog post she talks about her experience breastfeeding in a two-Mum family.

Hand on topIf you’re a two-mum family, can you both breastfeed? Does your daughter get confused about whose breasts to latch on to? Is your wife jealous of your breastfeeding relationship?”

These are just some of questions that I’ve frequently been asked in the 34 months of my daughter’s life. Despite the obvious point that they’re rather personal subjects to discuss with people I often don’t know very well, the topic of breastfeeding and LGBTQ families is an extremely important one.

World Breastfeeding Week has recently passed, but the week is intended to raise awareness of issues surrounding the encouragement and support of breastfeeding all weeks of the year. Strangely, though, few people talk about supporting LGBTQ individuals/families with regard to breastfeeding.

You might think this is a very niche subject, but in fact more and more LGBTQ people are having children. Although figures vary, there are estimates that 1-10% of the population is LGBTQ, and that nearly 10% of LGBTQ people have children. That’s not an insignificant number. Considering how much thought and effort (and expense!) has gone into getting those children, LGBTQ families are often equally thoughtful about how to feed their babies. We need to know where to turn when we need help with breastfeeding, and we need to know we will be treated fairly and equally.

While many of the concerns regarding breastfeeding are the same for all families – what positions work? What if there’s pain? How much should the baby be feeding? How do you know if the baby is healthy? – There are some issues that are specifically relevant to LGBTQ people.

For example, can both mothers in a two-mother family breastfeed? What would be required to induce lactation? And how would that affect supply? And what if the baby was conceived through IVF? Does that affect breastfeeding? What if the breastfeeding mother wants to try to get pregnant again through IVF while continuing to breastfeed? And, also, if you’re talking to a two-mum family, should you call them both mothers or is only the one who gave birth the mother? (Here’s a hint: use whatever terms the parents want to use! And don’t judge!)

What about a situation where a trans man has given birth? Is he a “mother” or a “father”, a “she”, a “he”, a “they”, or something else altogether? (Again: employ whatever terms people use to refer to themselves!) Will a man be able to feed if he has had chest surgery? If he’s taking hormones, can they influence his milk supply? Should you even call it “breastfeeding” or might the man you’re talking to prefer “chestfeeding” or “nursing”?

In some LGBTQ families, donor milk might be used. Where can they find it? Is it safe? How do they use a supplementer system?

This is all quite practical so far. Then there are the more psychological or theoretical points. Is feeding a baby likely to induce or increase dysphoria in a trans man? Will one mother breastfeeding cause sadness in the other mother if she was unable to conceive or breastfeed herself? How will the men in a two-dad family feel about not being physically able to provide breastmilk for their child? Do LGBTQ families feel represented in literature about breastfeeding? Is someone’s queerness recognised and acknowledged by health professionals? Are they getting equal treatment from midwives, health visitors, doctors, and others?

These are just some of the things that LGBTQ individuals/families and those who want to support them on their feeding journeys need to consider. And yet there is little written about or for this group of people, and few breastfeeding support workers get education about it.

This needs to change. As all the events and publications that stemmed from World Breastfeeding Week pointed out, all families deserve knowledge and support when it comes to breastfeeding their children. We need to do better when it comes to LGBTQ families in particular.