ANALYSIS

Fathers feed babies too — so why are they so scarce in media coverage of the formula shortage?

Our research shows that the idea that fathers are rarely nurturing caregivers is both harmful and untrue

Published June 18, 2022 2:00PM (EDT)

Father bottle-feeding his newborn baby (Getty Images/Westend61)
Father bottle-feeding his newborn baby (Getty Images/Westend61)

As the baby formula shortage wears on, we've followed the news with empathy and dismay. The shortage has only intensified, creating profound stress faced for families who depend on formula. As researchers who study the role of fathers in the lives and development of their children, we couldn't help but notice a pattern. Headline after headline decried the crisis facing parents, yet the corresponding coverage featured solely mothers. The depiction is out of touch with the reality of fathers' involvement in infant care, and contributes to an outdated and damaging narrative that fathers are limited in their capacity for caregiving. 

Father's Day is coming and we want to set the record straight. Most fathers of young children are actively involved in caregiving. The amount of time fathers spend caring for children has tripled since 1965 and the vast majority of fathers who live in the same home with their children feed their babies and young children every day. Fathers can and do participate in feeding babies however their babies are fed, in households shared with mothers and in the growing number of single father and two-father households. Fathers feed their infants bottles of formula and pumped breastmilk, and provide important emotional, practical, and physical support to partners who are breastfeeding.  

Father involvement in early childhood and beyond benefits children. But some fathers – especially those who are low-income, unmarried, and from minoritized communities – face barriers to full participation in their children's lives. Fathers may be seen as and treated as extra or optional parents, or worse, as irresponsible and irrelevant.  

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Our research with the African American Breastfeeding Network (AABN) challenges these stereotypes. We partnered with AABN to learn more about the experiences of Black fathers and families surrounding the birth of a new baby, including father involvement during pregnancy and infancy. We held a series of community conversations with Black parents in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated chronic racial inequality and concentrated disadvantage. What we learned makes one thing clear: fathers need to be recognized and supported as key caregivers. 

The amount of time fathers spend caring for children has tripled since 1965 and the vast majority of fathers who live in the same home with their children feed their babies and young children every day.

Contrary to the damagingly false notion that Black men are absent fathers, mothers and fathers alike offered and celebrated the ways in which fathers are breaking from restrictive gender norms to be more equal, hands-on caregivers. Fathers spoke of their commitment to being both "a provider" and "a presence," with one father telling us, "Every morning, I'm talking about every morning y'all, I don't miss a beat…, I get up, I'm doing dad stuff." One mother said of her partner, "I mean he's up at night with the baby… I work full time, he's there with the baby all day…"  


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Even when fathers are not living with their children and partners, even when they are not romantically involved with their children's mothers, even when their relationship with their children's mother is fraught, fathers told us they want to be there for their children "each and every step [of the way]." Mothers, too, told us that this is what they wanted – to be an effective team, to communicate and resolve conflict constructively, and for fathers to remain active in their children's lives, even if and when romantic relationships between parents end.    

Of course, things don't always work out this way. Even among parents who participated in our research, not all fathers have been able to attain the parenting roles and relationships they desire, and not all mothers have experienced co-parenting with an involved, caring father. Although on average fathers are providing more care than ever before, mothers continue to bear disproportionate responsibility for caregiving both in the US and around the world.  

This is a loss for fathers, mothers, and children. As demonstrated by the State of America's Fathers report, fathers want to spend even more time with their children and mothers want fathers to share caregiving more equitably. One thing is certain: children benefit from fathers' participation in their care and in their lives. 

We can simultaneously celebrate the progress that has been made and recognize that we have a long way to go to achieve a just future where all fathers receive the opportunities and support needed to be the parent they aspire to be, and mothers don't bear the lion's share of family responsibilities. We all have a role to play in bringing about this future. From media coverage of the formula shortage to services and supports for families, we must stop positioning fathers as secondary, nonessential actors. Like mothers, fathers can, do, and should be expected to provide the care that is foundational to children's healthy development and lifelong wellbeing.  


By Tova Walsh

Tova Walsh is an assistant professor of social work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network

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By Alvin Thomas

Alvin Thomas is an assistant professor of human development and family studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network

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Analysis Baby Formula Fatherhood Media Parenting Psychology