And yes, we persisted!: Breastfeeding Journey

Chetana Ajit is a La Leche League Leader and a Certified Lactation Educator Counselor. She is passionate about helping, supporting mothers and babies figure out breastfeeding. She has two children- Disha is 7 years and recently self-weaned. Tamia is 2.5 years and their nursing relationship is going strong. In her spare time, she helps out as an admin in Breastfeeding Support for Indian Mothers (BSIM) Facebook group. She homeschools her children and is an advocate of natural childbirth.

I was fast asleep. Something soft was pressing against my face. I tried to brush it away, only to realize that it was my daughter’s stomach. Her head was on my chest, blissfully breastfeeding upside down. I then flipped her, snuggled close and went right back to sleep.

1. How prepared were you for breastfeeding immediately after childbirth? Were you able to nurse your baby immediately?
I took breastfeeding for granted while I was pregnant. My mind was wandering when the instructor in the childbirth class was explaining about pumps and feeding bottles. How could anyone feed their baby in plastic bottles, when they have two perfect body parts designed just to do that?

At about 37 weeks of pregnancy, I was diagnosed with Intra-Uterine Growth Disorder (IUGR). I went for an ultrasound and was told that my baby is not growing well. After my midwife (my primary care giver) consulted with the doctor, she suggested that it would be best to induce labor. Our concern for our baby took over and we agreed to everything she recommended. I later found out that for most women with IUGR, the prescribed treatment is bed rest and eating highly nutritious food. Unfortunately, at that time we were unaware of these options. In retrospect, I should have questioned my midwife about it. But it was also her responsibility to give me options and help me make an informed decision.

After being induced, my daughter was born vaginally in a freestanding natural birthing center. She was 1.98 kgs at birth and was declared Small for Gestational Age (SGA). SGA babies typically have trouble maintaining normal body temperature. She was immediately transferred to a Neonatal ICU (NICU). And her first food was drops of formula and not the perfect food that was waiting for her, made just for her.

2. What was your reaction when you heard of the baby being fed formula?
Formula was a forced option. Our whole world started spiraling downhill. I remember being very angry and feeling betrayed when I found about kangaroo care. It is a technique practiced on a newborn, usually preterm, infants wherein the infant is held, skin-to-skin, with an adult. Kangaroo care, named for the similarity to how certain marsupials carry their young, was initially developed to care for preterm infants in areas where incubators are either unavailable or unreliable. It is a natural, baby-mother friendly way to help maintain body temperature.

After a reasonably gentle, natural birth outside the hospital, without painkillers, without unnecessary interventions, our daughter was lying in an incubator, with tubes sticking out and wires running through her tiny body. The system functioned precisely as it was designed to – force-feeding technology and blind trust in expert opinion as opposed to nature-given care perfected over generations.

Why weren’t we informed about our choices when she spent one week in the NICU, when I was struggling with pumping? When I was confused after her doctor told us that the only way we could take her home was if they could measure and declare that she was “eating” well? Here, the “eating” meant guzzling up formula from a plastic bottle, with a plastic nipple. This was a very vulnerable phase in our lives and it came as a shock to me that my daughter was getting formula. But I so badly wanted to be at home with my baby that I convinced myself that her getting a few more bottles of formula is okay and we can just get back to breastfeeding once this ordeal is over.

3. Since breast milk supply is generated through demand, how were you maintaining your supply? Were you allowed to provide the baby with pumped milk?
Time at the NICU was very stressful for all of us. I was forced out of the hospital room after just a day. We ended up renting a room at the hotel inside the hospital premises just to be close to her. I made trips from the hotel room to the NICU every two hours to hold and nurse my baby. In the time spent away from NICU, I was pumping to make sure that I would be able to breastfeed later. I was tired, emotional and distraught. But for a week we kept up this routine, in the hope that our daughter will be home soon. On one of the NICU trips, I spotted a pacifier in my daughter’s mouth although we had made it very clear that we did not want it. I was mad! There were Lactation Consultants (IBCLCs) at the hospital, but two sessions with them left me feeling even more helpless and drained.

By this time, our daughter was having a lot of formula and hardly any breast milk. The hospital grade pump I was using was not as effective as she would have been, had we been allowed to nurse round the clock. A close friend who had an older nursing daughter pumped and sent us her breast milk. I was grateful that she would be getting less formula and more breast milk. But due to strong opposition from my family I had to stop giving her that precious milk. I wish I had not, but exhaustion coupled with confusion led to this decision.

4. Its very sad to see how some hospitals are hand in glove with the formula companies. What a difficult experience it must have been! And I am guessing, the ordeal had just begun?
Once we finally got her home, I was determined more than ever that she should be breastfed. I was hoping to wean her off formula at the earliest. It was already a week since birth and I had not yet established my supply. I hired another IBCLC who recommended that I continue pumping. So, I nursed, pumped, nursed and pumped round the clock, pumping eight times a day. But still I wasn’t able to pump enough milk. I cried every time I gave my daughter a bottle of formula. Little did I realize that the more formula she had, the more my supply got affected.

Pumping memories are bittersweet. My husband and I used to sit and watch movies (Tarantino was a particular favorite) in the nighttime pumping sessions while our daughter slept. We listened to music. My husband used to sing to her and bounce her on a big exercise ball to calm her as I went through some marathon pumping sessions. He also used to wash all the pump parts and sterilize all the bottles. His presence during non-office hours was such a blessing and lifted my spirits.

On my LC’s suggestion we visited a chiropractor. She helped us realign our daughter’s spine. During childbirth, a baby’s spine can lose its alignment due to the stress he/she undergoes. The chiropractor also massaged her cheek muscles to loosen them up. We went for these sessions once a week, for two months. I was unable to gauge if this really helped our breastfeeding but went along with it.

I was in constant touch through phone, chat and email with a La Leche League (LLL) leader. Though she was a stranger, it was somehow more comforting to pour my heart out and express my anguish to her. She encouraged me to keep up the fight. She told me something that I will never forget: while it is very important to breastfeed, it is even more important to enjoy being with my baby. All those conversations gave the courage I needed and made me feel better.

After 2.5 months of pumping, eating every possible herb and food to up my supply and doing everything possible, our daughter was still having formula. I was not myself and realized it was affecting my relationship with my baby and husband. I had had enough of pumping, so I decided to stop. My LC told me to just breastfeed her once in the morning and once at night and continue giving her formula. I was quite resigned. Then a friend of mine suggested that I continue breastfeeding before offering formula. Which, thankfully I did.

5. So were you finally able to get her off the formula?
Later as months passed by, I felt confident enough to reduce her formula slowly. Around 8 mos we had halved her formula consumption. At this time we moved back to Bangalore. I weaned her off formula at 11 mos. All this time we continued to nurse. I had also introduced her to ragi and some vegetables and fruits after 6 mos. Once we stopped the formula, it was as if a burden had been lifted off my shoulders.

6. How has your experience with nursing in public (NIP) been?
I was very initially self-conscious about nursing in public (NIP) even during the few times we all went out for walks in parks. I remember feeling stressed which did not help as my daughter would sense my discomfort and cry out in protest. She wanted a happy mother.

I was very fortunate to meet an acquaintance who was also a new mom. We went on to become very good friends and spent a lot of time together, indoors and outdoors. Seeing her NIP and hearing her talk about her experiences was very helpful. In her own way, without any pressure, she showed me how easy it was.

We breastfed on treks, visits to the parks or at friend’s homes. In Bangalore, we nursed on moving motorbikes, on bus and train rides. Anywhere and everywhere (except the loos, of course)!

7. Unfortunately, the one year mark seems to be the new norm to breastfeed a baby. How much was the pressure to wean?
As time passed, I had seen, heard, learned and read about natural term weaning. I was convinced that this was the way forward for us. Despite repeated, well-meaning advice that she will not eat or gain weight if she continued to have breast milk, that she will become very dependent on me that extended breastfeeding is not good. Despite questions on how long I will breastfeed, if I still had milk, and how I could nurse my child in front of strangers. Despite being ushered into bedrooms in relatives’ homes when I started nursing her in the living room full of people; despite stares interspersed with a few smiles, we continued. Not for us, the designated nursing rooms becoming ever so popular in malls.

Breastfeeding beyond infancy has helped us stay close and has helped my child through some rough emotional and physical phases. It has helped her drift off to sleep – day in and day out. It has helped her recover from the trauma of her first blood test, from infections and provide a source of nutritious food while nothing else was palatable.

We were quite far from weaning at that age!

8. Could you tell us a little more about your experience with extended breastfeeding and when did Disha wean? How did it affect the both of you?
As years passed by she depended lesser and lesser on nursing. After five years of age, her younger sister came home. We continued to tandem nurse, though, with time, she needed to nurse only to fall asleep at night and when she was emotionally overwhelmed. At this age, it helped her connect with me anytime she felt she needed to.

Disha decided to stop on her own terms as she turned seven years. Between six and seven years, she would go for long periods of time not nursing, only to ask to nurse suddenly. This really helped me manage nursing both my children. While tandem nursing does not mean nursing at the same time, there were times when both of the children nursed simultaneously. I did not prefer these sessions, but was ok with it occasionally. I set boundaries for Disha so that I could nurse Tamia (my younger child) first and then attend to Disha’s needs. This helped me not get too overwhelmed. There were many times when I felt like not nursing at all or not nursing Disha. There were times when Disha’s latch was off. Despite all these challenges, we managed to carry on for as long as Disha needed to. For that I am happy as it gave me a chance to reconnect with her.

After she weaned, it felt like an era had ended, only for a new one to begin. I remember being thankful for nursing, especially when she was ill. I used to wonder what I would do when she weaned. I know that breastfeeding has helped her immunity, and now I know that we can all find other ways to cope with any difficult situations that may arise. After all these years we both were ready for the next phase in our relationship. I feel very happy to be able to have nurtured her for so many years through nursing, especially after our rocky start.

9. As we come to the end of this interview, what are your thoughts on how the society perceives breastfeeding in general?
Breastfeeding an infant is often taken for granted. After all, the female body is designed to nourish its young ones. But for many mothers it can pose serious challenges. Unfortunately, in the mainstream medicine, a sure stopgap solution for any challenge a woman faces while breastfeeding is industry prepared formula, which comes nowhere close to the natural liquid gold. To breastfeed her baby, a woman needs to be empowered to trust her body to birth as nature and her body intended. The baby should not be separated from her post birth. She needs a loving, caring environment and support- in case she runs into problems. Breastfeeding problems have breastfeeding solutions. While there may be some genuine cases where formula has been helpful in feeding a baby, more often than not its use has been abused.

When I first wrote about our breastfeeding experience, I was introduced to this ever exploding world of BSIM. I am forever grateful to Adhunika for adding me to this Facebook group. Back then it was called Breastfeeding Support for Pune Moms. It felt just right to be in this community where mothers could use their experience and help other mothers. BSIM has come a long way since then and I have grown along with it. I have met some passionate, committed mothers who give all their spare time to help new mothers. I have had the opportunity to learn so much and pass on that learning by being a part of BSIM.

Our society needs to support our mothers with the wisdom women have passed on from generations, with an unconditional trust in our own bodies to do what they are meant to. Breastfeeding has taught me to be kind, patient and compassionate. It has helped me forge everlasting friendships and experience the kindness of strangers. Above all it has helped us grow as a family, in more ways than even fathomable. And for all of this, I am forever grateful.


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