Hi Shilpa, tell us about yourself and your family.
Hello, my name is Shilpa. I’m a Bangalorean, married to a Chennai boy. We got married in 2016 and were blessed with our darling little boy in March, 2019. We’re currently based out of Chennai.
Can you share with us your birthing experience?
I was blessed with an amazing doctor who was extremely supportive from day one and gave me a patient hearing no matter what concerns I had. I had a LOT of concerns and questions, so I was extremely thankful to her and all I did throughout my pregnancy was follow what she said. There were certain reasons due to which I was advised a cesarean section and it was scheduled for when I completed 38 weeks. I had a fairly pleasant experience, constantly reassured by the doctors in the room. After what felt like hardly any time at all, my doctor said, “Shilpa, it’s a boy!”
It was about two weeks post delivery when I was still struggling with breastfeeding that I started reading up a lot more and learnt about the importance of the “golden hour”. I wish I had known about it earlier so that I could have at least asked my doctor about it. How I now look at it is that, though I missed the golden hour, I managed to leave the hospital with a healthy baby and that’s more than I could have asked for.
What kind of breastfeeding support did you receive in the weeks following birth?
At the hospital, working with my doctor and the lactation consultant and the numerous nurses, I was able to get the latch right after a lot of work. Once I got home, my mom was my biggest support system, guiding me and ensuring I was always well fed and hydrated, she tried her best to get me to rest as well. I think immediately after birth it was more of making sure you are doing it right, how to hold the baby and how to get the latch right. There wasn’t too much information being given on the actual process and benefits etc., as my doctor had already asked me to attend some classes on that.
What are some struggles you have had to overcome in your breastfeeding journey?
Some of the basic challenges I faced were how to get the latch right, how to get a sleeping baby to feed, multiple feeds at night, handling a cluster feeding baby, and of course the most important one – how to ensure that you build up your supply gradually.
However, there were a bunch of struggles I wasn’t prepared for.
- I was not aware that breastfeeding works differently for different mothers, although it is made out to appear as if it is the same for all. While I was advised to go get a few classes, all they said was “Latch, hydrate, sleep, repeat, and all will be well”. What they didn’t talk about is the importance of a deep latch, the importance of nursing as and when the baby demands and how that affects your supply. They didn’t talk about how babies latch for comfort or how long it takes for a new mom to start producing more milk and how the baby really does not need too much in the first few days post birth.
- I was also not aware of the link between maternal mental health and breastfeeding. It is incredibly important for a new mom to be made to FEEL comfortable and safe at all times. The reason I highlight the word “feel” is that everyone may be under the impression that everything is well, and the new mom has all the support she needs but it is very difficult to predict what may be going on in her head. Stress can affect the milk supply and since it is common and normal post delivery, we need to ensure we do what is possible to keep it under control.
- There always seems to be a lack of consensus between the various healthcare professionals you encounter during your stay at the hospital. In an ideal scenario, the gynecologist, paediatrician and lactation consultant are on the same page. In my case, while the paediatrician couldn’t stop insisting that I probably didn’t have a good supply, and hence instructed the nurses to feed the baby formula, the lactation consultant instructed the nurses to stop the formula. So not only was it stressful but it was incredibly confusing as well, as to who was right.
- I also had challenges with pumping. The paediatrician insisted that I pump in order to “check my supply”. In case it wasn’t adequate, I was supposed to start the baby on formula. He started with this on day two and would tell me every single time he came to check on us. That was three times a day! When I finally gave in and pumped, all I got was 12 ml. The shock of seeing 12 ml in the bottle got me so upset; I was completely convinced I was incapable of feeding my baby and I had been starving him until then. What I wasn’t aware of at the time was that:
- Pumping output varies for every mom.
- Pumping output is not an indicator of supply, what is an indicator of supply is the number of times the baby pees (no input leads to no output).
- Supply takes a few weeks to get established, and in the first few days post delivery it is very normal to see lesser output as the milk may not have come in properly as yet.
- One cannot expect much pumping output when you are handling a cluster feeding baby, there needs to be a bit of a break once the baby has been fed.
Do you feel there is enough psychological support for new mothers who want to breastfeed?
I think that the lack of awareness about breastfeeding in general poses a huge challenge for new mothers. Some of the questions and reactions that I got from near and dear ones and even strangers made me question if I was indeed doing the right thing.
- “Are you breastfeeding the baby?” – first of all, it is no one’s business how a mother chooses to feed her baby. She does not really control whether she can exclusively feed the baby, do a combination feed or formula feed. Depending on the person who is asking – it could be interfering or accusatory, or simply uncomfortable. This seemingly harmless question can make a new mom question whatever method she is following regardless of which it is.
- “Why aren’t you giving the baby formula?” – My response to this has nothing to do with formula feeding, but when a mother is trying to exclusively breastfeed her baby because that is what she wants to do, asking this question in the initial few days can make her question this decision and wonder if she is indeed starving her baby.
- “The baby is crying again, are you sure there is enough milk”, “he looks hungry” (after a long feeding session), “Oh, is it already time to feed him again”, “Oh the baby is quite lean, we need to make him more chubby” – again, these may be harmless remarks in the mind of the person making them – but they are best avoided. They are not supportive and can make a new mom feel like she is not doing enough/ not doing something right.
How do you think families and society can help new mothers succeed in breastfeeding their babies?
I think the most important contribution from family would be to help the new mom with whatever she thinks she needs help with. I had a fabulous support system wherein all I did was take care of my baby and everything else was taken care of for me. And to be honest, despite the support, I found breastfeeding incredibly challenging. Families also need to educate themselves on the entire process of breastfeeding in order to be able to fully support the new mom.
As far as society is concerned, I think there needs to be options to support every kind of new mom. Some are incredibly comfortable nursing in public, and some are not. Every establishment such as hospitals, clinics, restaurants, malls, stores etc. should have feeding rooms that are hygienic and well ventilated, and all workspaces must mandatorily have creches and pumping rooms. In fact my biggest challenge to continuing feeding is that my workplace, far from having a creche, does not even have a pumping room.
From your experience, do you think breastfeeding is exclusively nutritional or is there more to this connection between mother and baby?
There is definitely much much more to it than the nutritional aspect. I read somewhere that breastfeeding helps in coping with postpartum depression. But from my experience, I can say it can also be one of the primary contributors for depression. The immense pressure on exclusively breastfeeding or not being able to exclusively breastfeed can both prove to be extremely hard. In the early days, each feeding session was stressful, tiring, just painful. But after ploughing through, almost 100% thanks to my mom, I now love it. And just the look in your baby’s eyes makes the struggle worth it. Now, I know it’s going to be incredibly hard weaning him.
What would you recommend : fixing a time-table from birth or following the baby and understanding their inner clock?
With a newborn, I was advised to feed every two hours. But back then the baby wanted to feed almost all the time he was awake. So what I did and what I still do is follow his clock. When he was tiny I fed him whenever he wanted or once every 2 hours whichever was earlier. And now I feed him on demand, but the intervals between feeds are still pretty short in my case. Some people say I feed the baby too often, but that’s a choice I have made.
An important point to be noted here is that the more the baby feeds, emptying each breast fully, the better your supply. This is because the supply comes on the basis of the demand of the baby. The more the baby latches, the better it is for supply.
What are some effective strategies that worked for you with respect to breastfeeding?
These are some of the things that played a vital role for me,
- Rest. The more rest (not always sleep, but that’s great of course, if you can manage it) I got, the better my mental state and also my supply. Feed and rest and feed and rest is what I was told. I wasn’t too successful with following this advice, but when I did, it made a huge difference.
- Hydration. I was told to drink lots of fluids. Especially post a feeding session. Water, milk, juice, soup, porridge. What I do know is that when I didn’t drink enough fluids, I felt a hit in supply.
- Nutrition. There are plenty of foods that help with lactation and I have almost lost track of all that my mom fed me. But as someone who had supply issues, it was all of this that got me through. Everyone may not need to follow the path I had to, but a nutritious diet is a must anyway.
- Stay calm. By nature, this is hugely challenging for me. But I did realize eventually the more I stressed, the less it helped and there was a noticeable difference when I managed to keep myself calm and relaxed.
What would your advice to new mothers, who are anxious about breastfeeding, be?
- Read up, well in advance. It’s important to understand breastfeeding before your baby arrives.
- Talk to other new moms and ask them about their breastfeeding journey. If you are having a hard time, maybe, someone else went through the same and could have told you what got them through it.
- You and your family need to be on the same page, and this discussion must be had before the baby arrives. For this, not just the mom, all those who are likely to be around her in those initial weeks need to read up as well.
- Get a breast exam by your doctor. That may help you get a head start on preparing to breastfeed. In case of any challenges, they may be able to suggest solutions.
- Have a back up plan in case you are unable to follow your preferred method of feeding. When our baby had an accidental fall and hurt his lower lip, he was unable to feed. He was clearly hungry and crying out in pain. I managed to hand express and feed him with a spoon. But, not only was he not used to it, it was also incredibly time consuming and a hungry baby does not have the patience. Thankfully I had a manual pump, but with a crying baby, opening a new pump, washing, sterilizing, assembling and then pumping was all incredibly stressful. I realised it is worth keeping a backup option in mind. Having a breast pump as a backup, keeping it washed, sterilized and ready to use, or knowing which brand of formula you can use as a backup and how to prepare it could be very useful information and you never know when it could help you.
- Lastly, try to relax. There is so much thrown at a new mom all of a sudden that it is incredibly easy to get overwhelmed. Keep in mind that the calmer you are, the clearer you will be able to think and nothing beats how good that is for you and your baby.