By Akangsha J
Flashback to a year ago. My labour and delivery went as smooth as they could possibly go, like the entirety of my pregnancy. I had the baby exactly a day before the estimated due date, after just two hours of labour. I was ready 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 so caught up wondering how the delivery would go that I had completely forgotten an important component that would come after: breastfeeding.
A bit like being prepared for the wedding and not for the marriage.
During my pregnancy, my birth coach had explained the many positives of breastfeeding and on how it is the ultimate superfood. “Breast milk is so incredibly dynamic — its nutritional components change every day according to the individual needs of the baby,” my birth coach said repeatedly.
Her conviction made me read up about breastfeeding and I was fascinated by the compelling stories, which confirmed my intuition about breastfeeding being beneficial. My husband and I decided 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.
Surprisingly, I had to wait for my daughter to be brought to me after her weight was checked and after the paediatrician had had a look. I was allowed a peek and she was put to my breast, for a brief couple of minutes, before being placed under a warmer. I was shocked. I had expected unlimited skin-to-skin time and some assistance with breastfeeding, rather than the baby just being held to my breast.
Here I was, cleaned and sterilised post-birth, lying on the bed, looking at the baby under the warmer, and processing the joy of having become a mother. All of a sudden, I saw the nurse approach the baby with formula and a large-mouthed baby-feeder. ‘Formula?! Are they even allowed to feed her without consulting me?!’ was the furious thought running through my head.
Nearly everyone I met would share breastfeeding stories with me: “My grandson rejected breastmilk, so my daughter ended up bottle feeding him throughout”, “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 a bottle”. All these anecdotes had a common theme: because there isn’t enough support or information about breastfeeding, women become convinced of their inadequacy and give it up too soon.
While there are, of course, serious health conditions that might prevent a mother from breastfeeding, most mothers are perfectly capable of breastfeeding and most babies can thrive on just breastmilk for the first six months. If serious problems arise, a lactation consultant is never far away, and I wish paediatricians would refer more new mothers to a lactation professional rather than asking them to resort to formula. As for problems involving latching, most newborns struggle for the first few days, but the only way to get around it is to persevere with the breast.
But aggressive marketing and the promotion of formula companies, and certain maternity hospitals and paediatricians, attempt to make women believe that their milk is never enough for the baby.
When I was taken to my room, the first thing I asked my family was why on earth my baby was being fed formula, when I was right there — hale and hearty, and more than willing to nurse her myself.
“We spoke to them about it,” my mother assured me, “They are mandated to give the baby formula, until your milk comes in. After that, there is no need.” I started rattling 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 literally forced me back 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, because the baby mostly slept, in between the customary five minutes of holding her to my breast every couple of hours, after which the nurses would feed her some formula through a cup. It was hurtful to see our child being formula-fed in the first few days of delivery. But neither nurses nor doctors made the effort to talk about it, and 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. My obstetrician-gynecologist, my child’s paediatrician and my birth educator had advised me to avoid the traditional post-partum diets to which mothers in South India are usually subjected, but my mother — who was cooking all my meals at home — put me on this diet. It eliminated most lentils and beans, and several other high-fat foods, the misconception being that they’re ‘hard to digest’, and that a new mother needs a prescribed diet that’s easy on her stomach.
Meanwhile, every session of breastfeeding (every two hours), was like the slow unravelling of a nightmare which I had no control over. A typical session would go like this: my mother would be helping me hold the baby to my breast, with my grandmother and an aunt holding my breast and twisting my nipple, while keeping up a running commentary about my milk supply.
“I’m not sure she is producing enough milk,” my grandmother would say. “That is why the baby seems to be getting impatient and crying,” chipped in my mother. All the while I would be looking at my equally helpless husband standing in the corner, wishing for just a few minutes of privacy.
Soon, our daughter was due for a vaccination and we had to pay a visit to the paediatrician. The paediatrician was considerate and knowledgeable, taking through the finer points of 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, who was a soft-spoken and deeply comforting presence. Within minutes, she had attested my feeding technique, showed me how to burp the baby properly, check her stomach to see if she is full, shared some advice about feeding schedules, pumping, and expressing milk.
But most importantly, she had boosted my confidence with regards to breastfeeding. She told me, in no uncertain terms, that breast milk was all that 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 as I could to get my supply to a satisfactory level. I suddenly felt better equipped to face the six months of exclusive breastfeeding ahead of me, and the first thing I did after getting home was trash the formula bottle.
We set up sound ground rules for the family. Our daughter would be exclusively breastfed and if there were any further doubts about breastfeeding, I would approach the lactation consultant and not my aunts. I would follow the rigid post-partum diet to please my family until my baby turned 10 days old and would then shift to a normal diet.
So apart from the first few days in the hospital, I am thrilled to say that she was exclusively breastfed, right up until she began eating solids at six months. Even after this, 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, free of illnesses or fevers, reaching age-appropriate physical and emotional milestones.
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. There is nothing ‘vulgar’ about it, but because of popular culture sexualising women’s breasts, 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, and wish breastfeeding was normalised in public spaces. Even in posh malls with no baby care rooms, what option do I have but to nurse my hungry baby in public? Perhaps 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.
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, or on top of it. And 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.