The other day, while I was breastfeeding my six-month-old baby boy until he drifted off to sleep, I casually scrolled through my social media feeds. Among the content, I stumbled upon a viral video featuring a young mother driving an e-rickshaw. In the video, her toddler was latched onto her breasts, all while waiting for a passenger to get on board. Shielding her eyes from the blazing sun in the scorching afternoon, she wiped her face with her scarf and drove off, merging with the heavy traffic on the road. Before becoming a mother, I might have viewed it as just another video of a woman working hard to provide for her family. However, now that I am a mother myself, it resonates with me on a deeper level, evoking a more profound emotional response. The inspiring image of a helpless but determined and confident young mother is forever etched in my memory.
As a first-time mom, I embarked on my breastfeeding journey with excitement and anticipation. While I was fortunate to experience a relatively smooth breastfeeding journey, there was still a learning curve for me. By sharing my personal experience, I wish to highlight some of the challenges in the breastfeeding journey with the hope of creating a nurturing and supportive environment that empowers and encourages breastfeeding mothers.
Learning about Proper Latch: Learning about how to encourage proper latch was crucial for successful breastfeeding. Initially, I struggled with understanding the correct positioning, which led to soreness and discomfort for both my baby and me. I didn’t feel comfortable asking anyone about it because socially conditioned to feel embarrassed discussing it. Thankfully, I could access high-quality content and infographics online on breastfeeding online by the World Health Organization, which proved invaluable in understanding the right techniques to encourage a correct latch.
As I educated myself on early infant care and breastfeeding, I also learned about tongue tie, a condition that can hinder proper latching. While its occurrence ranges from 3% to 16% worldwide, the condition is an overlooked complication in an Indian scenario. Tongue tie refers to a restricted range of motion of the tongue, where an unusually short, thick, or tight band of tissue tethers the bottom of the tongue's tip to the floor of the mouth, potentially interfering with breastfeeding. Although my baby didn't have this issue, it is essential to be aware of it in case your baby faces difficulties in feeding.
If faced with such challenges, expressing breast milk and feeding through a bottle is often recommended. While some mothers may find the idea of using an expensive breast pump intimidating, I found that hand-expressing milk is a straightforward and effective alternative.
Proper Nutrition for Breastfeeding Mothers: In the first month after my delivery, I was in a challenging situation when all my family members had to go away due to unavoidable reasons. My baby and I were home alone for three days. During this time, I struggled to cook and eat properly, resulting in a decision to order food from an online app. Unfortunately, this choice led to food poisoning, causing extreme discomfort with severe diarrhea, dehydration, and exhaustion that ultimately required me to rush to the emergency room. Feeding a baby when unwell can be doubly challenging.
Consequently, my baby also experienced stress and diarrhea, leading us to visit the emergency room again. Eventually, we both recovered but suffered significant weight loss within a week. It was a trying experience highlighting the importance of having a support system and proper self-care during the initial postpartum weeks.
India has a rich tradition of caring for new mothers by providing foods known for their health and healing properties. Many families offer foods that are believed to enhance milk production, such as fenugreek and fennel seeds. However, it is disheartening to acknowledge that not all mothers have access to family support or the resources to afford nutritious food.
Thankfully, I could hire a helper to prepare clean and homemade meals such as khichdi, oatmeal porridge, soups, and ajwain (carom seeds) water. The combination of homemade food and maintaining regular meal times played a crucial role in supporting and enhancing my breastfeeding journey. I genuinely empathize with working mothers and those who take care of themselves and their babies single-handedly.
Supporting Breastfeeding through Nights: Going into child delivery, I knew I would have to breastfeed frequently and that a good night's sleep might elude me. However, no amount of literature or information had prepared me for the reality of actually breastfeeding throughout the night. Complicating matters, my baby had a significant reflux problem, necessitating that he be fed in an upright position, which meant I had to sit up to feed him each time. After each feeding session, I had to spend at least twenty more minutes ensuring he had a proper burp before laying him in bed.
During the first month, my baby’s sleep patterns seemed to be reversed, as he slept more during the day and fed more frequently at night, adding to the challenges of nighttime feedings. As a new mother, my body was still recovering from c-section. The improper attempt to use an epidural (an injection in your back to stop you from feeling pain) during delivery also left me with severe back aches, I couldn’t bend or sit for extended periods of time which added to the challenges of feeding at night. To say it was exhausting is an understatement. There were nights when tears would stream down my face, but the thought of mothers who are less privileged than me (I am privileged to be on paid maternity leave) motivated me to rise up and stop feeling sorry for myself.
Speaking to other moms, I realized that babies have different feeding and sleeping patterns. We can gently encourage the change in their patterns. I began to feed frequently during the day to reduce night-time waking for my baby, and gradually it became better. While pumping breastmilk is not a common practice in India, promoting its use could help mothers maintain breastfeeding while taking some time off to rest, either at night or during the daytime.
I cannot fathom the challenges faced by new mothers who juggle responsibilities such as cooking, cleaning, or working in farms and factories. By shedding light on these difficulties, I hope that families and employers will recognize the need to create a more supportive environment for mothers, not only in corporate settings but also in informal sectors.
The Role of a Supportive Husband or Partner: When babies cry out of hunger, everything else takes a backseat as we promptly sit down to breastfeed. I usually keep my mobile phone nearby to call on my husband for assistance, but sometimes it isn’t feasible. I am immensely grateful for my husband, who makes sure to check on me in the room regularly. Though it may seem like a small gesture, it is an enormous help. With my baby on my lap, breastfeeding or sleeping, it is impossible for me to move or make any sound. In that moment, I need someone to adjust the fan, bring me water, fetch a swaddle, provide support with a pillow, or turn the light on or off. When my husband was not around, I would sit helplessly, unable even to reach the water placed on the table beyond my easy grasp. The thirst would be unbearable, but I had to wait until someone checked on me. These seemingly small acts of support from a partner or family members are of immense significance for a breastfeeding mom, making the challenging journey of motherhood a bit more manageable and comforting.
Breastfeeding in Public Places and Overcoming Social Pressure: Breastfeeding in public places is unavoidable. I encountered various situations where I had to nurse my baby, be it in public transport, public park, or market areas. Unfortunately, not all public spaces provide breastfeeding facilities, which can be challenging for mothers. I experienced judgment from others while nursing in public, highlighting the need to destigmatize breastfeeding and create a more accepting environment for breastfeeding mothers.
I will never forget my train journey, which turned into a challenging and emotional experience due to an encounter with a woman who had reservations about breastfeeding in public. As I sat down to feed my three-month-old baby, the woman approached me and asked me to fully cover myself and my baby's face because of her twenty-year-old son present nearby. However, I had already noticed that my baby was uncomfortable with his face covered during feedings, so I politely declined her request, prioritizing my baby's comfort.
In response, the woman seemed upset and decided to play loud music on her phone when my baby needed to sleep. It was a distressing moment for me, as I felt caught between wanting to nourish and soothe my baby and not wanting to create discomfort for others. Eventually, I realized that it was unfair to let my baby suffer because of someone else's discomfort.
As the situation escalated, I made the difficult decision to leave my seat and exchange it with another passenger in the same coach. It was heart-wrenching to think that a simple act of breastfeeding had caused such tension and discomfort for all involved.
Reflecting on that moment, I couldn't help but wish that people could set aside their personal differences or embarrassment and instead support the needs of an innocent infant. Breastfeeding is a natural and essential process for a baby's well-being, and it is crucial for society to embrace, support, and normalize it without judgment or discomfort.
Emotional Bonding through Breastfeeding: The emotional bond I formed with my baby during breastfeeding was priceless. Moments like my baby looking at me with contentment or seeking comfort during a painful experience showed the deep connection between us.The very first time my baby looked at me and made a cooing sound was during one of our breastfeeding sessions. Breastfeeding should never be rushed or treated as mere survival feeding. Instead, it should be acknowledged as a crucial opportunity for both mother and baby to bond deeply. Loving family members should avoid rushing the process or unnecessarily interrupting these moments, allowing the mother and baby to experience the full benefits of breastfeeding and emotional connection.
The Significance of Breastfeeding: Breastfeeding holds immense importance for both infants and mothers. Not only does breast milk provide optimal nutrition tailored to the baby's needs, but it also offers vital antibodies and immune factors, protecting against various infections and promoting cognitive development. Breastfeeding has numerous health benefits for mothers, aiding in postpartum recovery and reducing the risk of various diseases. Additionally, the emotional bond formed during breastfeeding is invaluable, promoting the well-being of both mother and baby.
Conclusion: My breastfeeding journey has been a transformative experience, and I feel privileged to have nourished and nurtured my baby through this process. I have become an advocate for breastfeeding and believe that creating a supportive environment is essential for mothers to overcome challenges and provide the best nourishment for their babies. I do want to insert a note that my intention here is not to disregard or criticize mothers who, due to specific medical or valid reasons, cannot breastfeed. I fully acknowledge the challenges they face, and it is essential to understand that some situations are beyond our control. Each mother's journey is unique, and we must support and respect their individual choices and circumstances.
This year's Breastfeeding Week campaign by WHO and UNICEF, focuses on the integration of breastfeeding and work to ensure a harmonious balance. I am fortunate to work with an organization and colleagues that fully support my breastfeeding journey. By promoting breastfeeding education, lactation support services, workplace accommodations, and public awareness, we can empower mothers to make informed decisions and embrace the beauty of breastfeeding.
Regardless of the circumstances, mothers consistently go above and beyond to nurture their children. Just like the inspiring mother I saw in the video, who was driving an e-rickshaw while breastfeeding. Witnessing such dedication should evoke feelings of compassion and a desire to offer support. Rather than idolizing mothers for their capabilities, what they truly need is better support. Every mother deserves the chance to rest, receive adequate nutrition, and have basic comforts to feed and nurture her baby. If each of us rallies behind these resilient and strong mothers, we can create an environment where motherhood is cherished and supported, leading to a more nurturing society for all.
Written by Tara Rana, Communication Catalyst, Learning4impact team, Swasti