My experiences as a breastfeeding, working mum in India

It is important that we initiate a conversation.

 |  15-minute read |   08-11-2016
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Flashback to a year ago, my labour and delivery went as smooth as it could possibly go, just like the entirety of my pregnancy. I had the baby exactly a day before the estimated due date, with the baby making an appearance in just two hours of labour.

I was raring to step into my new role, despite having experienced one of the most intense physical adventures of my life. Like any expectant mother, I had been too caught up wondering how the delivery would go that I had completely not thought about an important component that would come after: the breastfeeding. It is a bit like being prepared for the wedding and not for the marriage.

I had read a lot about breastfeeding during my pregnancy and I was quite eager to have a go at it. Surprisingly, I had to wait for my daughter to be brought to me after her weight was checked and after the pediatrician had had a look.

I was allowed a peek and she was put to my breast, for a quick two minutes, before being placed under a warmer. I was pretty shocked, I had expected unlimited skin-to-skin time and some assistance with breastfeeding, rather than the baby just being held at my breast.

Here I was, cleansed and sterilised post-birth and lying on the bed, looking at the baby under the warmer. I was processing the joy of having become a mother and was shocked to see the nurse approach the baby with some formula and a large-mouthed baby-feeder.

"Formula?! Were they even allowed to feed her without consulting me?!" was the enraged thought running through my head.

When I was taken to my room, with baby in tow, the first thing I asked my family was why on earth my baby was being fed formula, when I was here, hale and hearty, more than willing to nurse her, myself. “We spoke to them about it,” my mom assured me, “They are mandated to give the baby formula until your milk comes in. After that, there is no need.”

I started reeling off about colostrum and how it was important for a new-born who didn’t need anything else, but was cut off by a bunch of aunts, who had come to visit, who literally forced me into my hospital bed. “It is important for you to take rest, as a new mother,” they said.

The next couple of days in the hospital were fairly uneventful, the baby mostly slept. The nurse would bring her to me every couple of hours for a customary "five minutes" of holding her to my breast. As a first-time mother, I had no clue if the latch was right or if I was holding her right, the nurses just shrugged when I asked them questions making no effort to encourage or educate me. After the customary five-minute ritual, they would feed her some formula through a cup.

During my pregnancy, my birth coach who was a huge advocate of breastfeeding had spoken to me about it. I was definitely bought into the philosophy. Discussing with my husband, we had promised ourselves that our offspring would be exclusively breastfed for six months and on returning to work, I would express my milk for her.

I had even invested considerably on a fully-electronic, double-sided pump. It was hurtful to see our child being formula-fed in the first few days of delivery. Neither the nurses nor the doctor made any attempts to talk about breastfeeding, and feeling unsupported and disappointed (for we had carefully chosen this birth facility), we were discharged in a couple of days, along with a bottle of formula!

The first few days at home with the new baby were anything but relaxed. Despite my obstetrician-gynecologist, my child’s pediatrician and my birth educator advising me to not adhere to the traditional post-partum diets mothers in South India are subjected to, my mother, who was cooking all my meals at home, put me on this diet, that eliminated most kind of lentils and beans and many more high-fat foods, under the guise that they’re "hard to digest" and that a new mother needs a prescribed diet that’s easy on her stomach.

My body had an awfully hard time reconciling to this incredibly "lean diet", given that I had just gone through the rigours of childbirth and was now lactating, I felt like I needed the comforting protein of eggs and lentils, and a diverse bunch of vegetables (even green, leafy vegetables were a no-no in this diet!)

Every internet source I referred to and every health professional I asked told me that my eating root vegetables or lentils or beans would have no effect on my baby’s digestive system or gas. Babies tend to be gassy because of their limited mobility and that the mother should continue to eat a diverse, inclusive, healthy diet.

However, no amount of such logical arguments had an effect on my mother, who was stuck on following post-partum traditions. I felt tired and depleted. Being allowed to indulge in a free-wheeling and multi-faceted diet in this vulnerable time would have enabled me to fight post-partum blues and helped me get off to a good start with breastfeeding.

Every session of breastfeeding (basically, every two hours) was slowly unravelling into a nightmare, where I felt I had no control. A session would see my mother, grandmother and any visiting aunt or female relative (none of whom, it seemed, had any notion of privacy) all surround my bed, one of them would be holding the baby, another pressing my nipple and another would be running a commentary about my milk supply. All this while I’d be helplessly looking at my equally helpless husband, who would be standing in the corner, wishing for just a few minutes of privacy.

pregnancy-embed_110716062313.jpg Returning to work made me realise how unsupportive and unsympathetic managers and companies can be to mothers returning from maternity leave. (Photo credit: India Today)

Soon, our daughter was due a vaccination and hence, a visit to the pediatrician was due, also for the well baby-clinic, which is a customary visit to the pediatrician within a few days of the baby’s birth, where the doctor does a thorough check-up of the infant and guides the family on any concerns they may have.

The pediatrician was considerate and knowledgeable and took us through the finer points of the growth-monitoring. She assured us that the baby was well and asked if we had any concerns about breastfeeding.

I mentioned that I wasn’t sure how well the baby was feeding and wanted some help with my hold and she quickly organised a consultation with the clinic’s lactation consultant.

The soft-spoken yet pleasant-faced consultant was a comforting presence indeed. Within minutes, she had attested my feeding technique, showed me how to burp the baby properly and check her stomach to know if she is full, shared some best practices with respect to feeding schedules and pumping and expressing milk, and most importantly, boosted my confidence with regards to breastfeeding in general.

She told me, in no uncertain terms, that breastmilk was all my daughter needed for the first six months of her life and that I needed to be confident about my supply and nurse as much (or express) as I could to get my supply to a satisfactory level.

I was feeling better equipped to face the six months of exclusive breastfeeding ahead of me. The first thing I did, on coming back home was trash the formula bottle. We set up sound ground rules with the family - our daughter would be exclusively breastfed and if there were any further doubts with regards to breastfeeding, I would approach the lactation consultant, not take advice from visiting aunts.

Because of my family’s sentiments, I would follow the rigid post-partum diet until my baby turned 10 days old and would then shift to a normal diet.

Apart from the first few days in the hospital, I am thrilled to say that she was exclusively breastfed up until she began eating solids at six months of age. Even after she began eating solids and I got back to work, her milk feeds were either directly from me or milk I would express and store.

It was a happy journey and I could see her thriving - gaining weight steadily, being free of illnesses/ fevers, reaching age-appropriate physical and emotional milestones.

While I had sufficient support from my immediate family, others (friends, neighbours and aquaintances) were always curious – "Is your breastmilk enough for her?"; "How do you know that you are producing enough?"; "Is your milk enough to provide all the nutrients she needs?". I would reply firmly that it seemed enough for my baby and attested that my pediatrician was happy with her intake and growth.

Nearly everyone I met would share breastfeeding stories- “my grandson rejected breastmilk, so my daughter ended up fully bottle feeding him”; “My daughter never latched and I had to keep pumping and feed her. By six months, my supply had dried up and now I exclusively formula feed”; “I had to go back to work in three months, so I started topping up with formula in two months so that my supply would temper and my baby would get used to the bottle”- all stories had a common theme: not enough support or information to breastfeed, women being convinced of their inadequacy and giving up too soon.

While there are of course serious health conditions that can prevent a mother to breastfeed, most mothers are perfectly capable of breastfeeding and most babies, thrive on just breastmilk for the first six months.

I felt that aggressive marketing and promotion of formula companies, and even certain maternity hospitals and pediatricians, had made women believe that their milk is never enough for the baby.

In terms of problems of latching, most newborns struggle with it for the first few days after birth. The only way to get around it is to persevere with the breast, the baby will eventually get used to it and so will the mother.

For bigger problems, a lactation consultant is never far away and I wish pediatricians would refer more new mothers to a professional rather than asking them to resort to formula.

Breastfeeding, especially in the first few weeks and particularly for first-time mothers, is awfully hard. There are no two ways about it. Your nipples will feel sore, the whole process is painful, the baby will fall asleep at your breast, on top of it, there is fatigue left over from the delivery, not to mention the punishing two-hour feeding routines. But get through the initial weeks and stick to breastfeeding and it can pay rich dividends.

Breastfeeding in a public place in India turned out to be a different beast altogether. While breastfeeding involves an intimate body part, it also involves the act of nurturing and nourishing a small human being.

Honestly, there is hardly anything "vulgar" about it. It is because of popular culture sexualising women’s breasts that people think breastfeeding in public is a disgusting and indecent act.

In my endeavour to keep up a normal life post-baby, or even in cases of necessities, like a doctor’s appointment, I would breastfeed my daughter in public, and would encounter a variety of reactions: I have had women come up to me and thrust a dupatta into my hands and say, "cover up, there are men here" and even a taxi driver who lowered the front seat mirror and kept glancing inappropriately at me during a ride.

I was tired of this attitude. I wish breastfeeding was normalised in public spaces. Even in posh malls, in the absence of a baby care room, what option do I have but to nurse my hungry baby in public? Maybe if breastfeeding was viewed as a normal, rational way to feed or soothe a baby in India, more women would choose to breastfeed rather than resort to a bottle of formula.

The first six months of my daughter’s life sped by. Not only was it time to start her on her first solid food, but it was also time for me to get back to work. Thankfully, I had a battery of emotional, social and physical support at home: parents, household help - all assuring me my daughter would be in the safest hands possible.

Despite feeling guilty and wondering if she/I would miss each other, I knew in my heart that I was dying to go back to work. Not only had I enjoyed financial independence and the confidence that comes with loving your work and being good at what you do, I was missing the general office camaraderie.

Through my maternity leave, I had ensured that I kept in touch with my manager and team. A few days before I was due to get back to work, I emailed my boss asking if I could come meet her, so that we could draw up my workplan.

I was obviously feeling out of sorts after being out of action for six months and was returning to a much changed organisation and team (with many new additions). She agreed and on meeting me, when I expressed how excited I was to be back at work, she said: "Are you sure you want to come back to work? I took a break for five years after my children were born, to look after them."

I was quite shocked. In my experience of working in Indian companies, it might be too much to expect empathy or support, but downright discouragement was new and hardly what I needed at this time.

I explained that I was happy to take on any work, but couldn’t travel outside the city for work, for another six months. I was breastfeeding my daughter and had to go back home to her every night. While my job wasn’t a "traveling job" in terms of the textbook definition, it did involve some travel.

However, the way I saw it, the travel could be shared by the rest of the team and I in turn, could be given some extra responsibilities that didn’t require travel. My manager remained non-committal about what work she would assign to me and merely said, "we shall see".

Soon, my official first-day-back-at-work came around and I was getting my bag ready with my sterilised bottles and breast pump. I had requested my boss for 20 minutes in the morning and afternoon to be excused, so that I could find an empty cabinet to express my breast milk.

She had been lukewarm about the whole request and asked, "Is that even a thing? How do you plan to take the milk home?" I was quite irritated but told her I had thought through it, had an icebox that came with the breast pump and had spoken to a colleague, who had had a baby the previous year and had done the whole pumping routine at our workplace and even to the administration team, to request for an empty cabinet to use, twice a day.

The least she could do is support me, if not actually facilitate my request. She shrugged and said "as long as it doesn’t interfere with your work”.

A week passed, and soon, it was an entire month that I had been back at work. My manager still hadn’t given me concrete work, my suggestions that I’d take up something were met with "nos" too. It was either that someone was working on it already and that there was not much happening on another project.

“Can you travel?” I was asked repeatedly, and each time I said - no, I’m sorry, I cannot travel until my little one is a year old. I felt my confidence eroding me, what had made my manager and team view me as a liability? I had been on maternity leave, not gone away for a six-month vacation.

My daily routine was tight. My little one had adjusted very well without me, as long as she got my expressed breast milk in a bottle. To our dismay, she refused formula - even in emergencies - even if given in the same bottle she had her breastmilk in.

This meant I had to be on top of my schedule and could never miss a pumping session at work. There was one occasion when my manager scheduled a meeting (of a miniscule project I was eventually assigned to) at 7pm.

To her defence, it was with an international client and there were no other mutual time slots available. But she did know that I had to leave work at 6pm, so that I could reach home at 7.30pm, in time for my daughter’s 7.45 hunger pangs.

Helpless and not knowing what to do, I eventually had to pump some extra milk at work and get a pick-up-and-drop service to pick up the milk bottle in an ice box and drop it home to my parents and daughter.

Returning to work made me realise how unsupportive and unsympathetic managers and companies could be to moms returning from maternity leave. Beyond a token granting of leave and associated benefits, I wish they would seriously think about how to really re-integrate the woman to the workplace and how to support her emotionally and physically through these major life changes.

While I was thankful to have ample support at home, this sadly isn’t the case with every new mother and it is no surprise that so many women end up giving up their careers at this vulnerable and delicate time of their lives.

As a developing country that has just passed a historic law mandating maternity leave for 26 weeks, it is important that we also initiate conversations on breastfeeding. Enough scientific evidence has been generated to underline its importance to nourish, nurture and even save young lives. Are we willing to go beyond token benefits and support breastfeeding - in the hospitals, at workplaces, public spaces and even at home?

Also read: When will breastfeeding in public become acceptable?

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