‘It takes a village to raise a child’
This famous saying comes to my mind when I think about my exclusive breast feeding experience. It was not an easy one and required a lot of patience and perseverance, intake of proper nourishment and most importantly devoted time.
I had a very difficult pregnancy, where I was largely home-bound for the whole term. As a development professional and a child rights crusader knowing the benefits of exclusive breast feeding, I was determined to offer my child nothing but breast milk for first six months. The phase, though extremely fulfilling, wasn’t an easy one and I owe it to a lot of people who guided and supported me during the period.
No amount of reading can actually prepare one for motherhood and I truly believe one just has to go with the flow. For me hospitalisation and child birth was one stormy ride. My first lesson on breast feeding started at the Hospital where I delivered our baby. The attending nursing staff at the hospital was determined that I adapt to all bodily changes instantaneously and gear up to feed in a particular style, maintain proper posture, follow a balanced diet, drink enough water etc. In midst of the pain and emotional muddleness, I then hated their behaviour and found them really pushy. It is only then later that I realised, that it was indeed the best lesson I received.
Post discharge, when I returned home, I give complete credit to my partner, my mother-in-law and my mother who took care of me and the baby so that I could offer feeding to the child as and when required. My mother-in-law took great care of me and made sure I was well nourished and well rested. My child had severe colic issues and it was because of which she would wake up several times, would want to latch multiple times not only to satiate hunger but also to soothe the discomfort caused due to abdominal pain. It is only because I was freed from other household responsibilities both physically and mentally, could I manage feeding our child ‘on demand.’
Pregnancy hormones act up and mood swings exist and I had my share of it too. Some people think it is over-rated whereas some others think it not spoken about enough. I had many moments of the mixed feeling of been happy yet tired. Eager and anxious, and at the same time highly doubtful about whether what I was doing was fine and more importantly, enough. We had some visitors and concerned relatives who formed associations between my child’s colic pains and my lactation which confused me and put me in a lot of self-doubt. Post partum visits to my Gynaecologist and our child’s Paediatrician cleared a lot of these self doubts. It helped made me understand that my focus should be on growth monitoring and nothing else. And that only if the growth / weight gain shows deviation should I actually be worried about the feeding practice.
It is also during that phase that I learned that while largely women can naturally feed their babies, some others do struggle and have lactation issues needing further help, surgical intervention, psycho-social support and initiation of supplementary feeding at an early stage. Also natural feeding, supplementary feeding or mixed methods are just different ways. It does not make a mother any less of a mother if she chooses a particular way of feeding.
In the first six months we extensively travelled with our baby. When our child was 2.5 months we travelled with her from Mumbai to Pune for a friend’s wedding. Thereafter, my partner and I took her to Ahmedabad visiting my parents and soon after to Kerela with a bunch of friends for a short vacation. I was blessed to be surrounded by positive and supportive friends who equipped me with the right information, shared encouraging stories, offered non-judgemental hearing, pushed me to travel without fear, extended all help required during travel and stay – from carrying bags and calming her down to excitedly help building a make shift cradle. All of this gave me a lot of strength and confidence.
Last but not the least the friendly maternity policy at work allowed me to stay home for 3 months and on leave for another 2, using my accumulated leaves. When I resumed work, the employee friendly policy allowed me to join for half a day, gradually increasing to 6 hour days and then full time by the time my baby was 9 months old. This gave me time to express and store milk while I was away at work and offer feeding again while I was again with the baby. With a conducive work and home environment, with best child care arrangements at home with my in-laws support, I could actually introduce supplementary feeding and solids timely post 6 months and eventually wean off breast feeding at 1.5 years.
In India only 55% of our mothers are able to exclusive carry out breastfeeding in first 6 months. A large number of women are not able to do the same either because they have to start working within couple of weeks of delivering a child – cooking, cleaning, cattle, farming, taking care of other children and family and other household chores. Today when we promote exclusive breastfeeding we have to remember that it exists in the backdrop of various settings, complexities and struggles of newborn and new mother. While some mothers genuinely struggle biologically, not being able to feed the child and have to look at supplementary feeding, some others are overloaded with household chores and cannot devote that much time. On one end there are women who still don’t have adequate knowledge and are under the shadows of myths, misconceptions, wrong information and rigid beliefs and on the other hand there are women who can afford and desperately seek out for breast milk bank to feed their young ones. There are mothers who feel terrible alone and battle post partum depression, while few others have zero support system and are all by themselves. Few mothers experience extreme tiredness and exhaustion and just don’t feel like carrying exclusive breast feeding. Some feed humiliated by stares and remarks by bystanders for feeding in public while few others express milk every few hours to feed that young ones struggling in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU). All these experiences, though varied, are real everyday struggles of numerous lactating mothers. And in all of these stories, one thing which would commonly help new mothers is non-judgemental support and care.
I feel I was lucky to have loving family, friends and colleagues who supported me during this phase and made it one of the most memorable phases of my life.
(The author is mother to a 4-year old girl and has been working with CRY for 8 years now. She heads the Policy Advocacy function at CRY.)