Breast is best but how hard is it for employed women to keep up the breastfeeding schedule?

From work spaces that have no facilities to lecherous men in public spaces, the challenges before breastfeeding women are several.
Breast is best but how hard is it for employed women to keep up the breastfeeding schedule?
Breast is best but how hard is it for employed women to keep up the breastfeeding schedule?
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In a shocking incident at Frankfurt airport, an Indian-origin woman who lives in Singapore was allegedly asked by the German police to prove that she was lactating because she was carrying a breast pump but had no baby with her.

While Gayathri Bose, the 33-year-old mother of two, has said that she was humiliated by the experience and is considering legal action, the police has denied the allegation.

Whatever be the truth of the incident, it brings to light once again the challenges that breastfeeding mothers, especially ones who are employed, traveling or need to be away from the baby for long hours, face. 

29-year-old Hema works in the software industry. She had her son in 2015, at a time when the maternal leave policy only allowed a window of 12 weeks for the new mother to get back to work.

"I tried explaining that I wanted at least another month off but they were not willing to extend my leave," says Hema. She was working on a critical project at that time and her company wouldn't budge.

However, Hema was keen to breastfeed her baby and decided to quit. "I walked out of my office then and there," she says. Luckily for her, the company she joined after a few months was more accommodating.

"We have a lactation room with a refrigerator," says Hema. "And I used to pump about five times a day. It was not a fancy room but quite comfortable and more than enough for me."

The WHO recommends exclusive breastfeeding for six months and a diet with complementary foods up to two years and beyond. 

While some new mothers are comfortable breastfeeding right away, many find it difficult to meet the demands made on their body, space, and time by the arrival of the new baby. Issues like postpartum depression and lack of support from the family can complicate matters and make the mother lose interest in breastfeeding.

For employed women, who have to get back to an office space, after their maternity leave comes to an end (currently 26 weeks in India), breastfeeding beyond this period can be a daunting task.

Niloufer Ebrahim, a Pune-based Lactation Consultant, says, "Breastfeeding is a personal choice that a woman makes. If she is physically capable of breastfeeding, has knowledge about its benefits, and is willing to do it - I know stay-at-home mothers who've stopped feeding and I know mothers who work full-time but have breastfed their babies all through."

28-year-old Saranya also works in the software industry and is mother to two children. For both babies, her company was willing to give her six months of maternity leave.

"My first one was born in 2014 and the second one in 2016. I decided to join work after five months for my elder daughter though my company was okay with me taking six months off," says Saranya. "I shifted my house close to my office and would feed her before going to work. Then, I'd take a share-auto home every afternoon to breastfeed. It was hectic but I wanted to do it."

Saranya fed her first daughter till the time she was close to two years. For her second one, she stopped when the baby was around six months of age because she was a preemie who needed top feeds. "My supply started coming down and I couldn't feed her beyond that," she says. 

An additional reason was that Saranya's office does not have a lactation room. 

"I guess I could use a meeting room or something like that but I'm not sure how private that would be," she says. "I didn't consider pumping at work because of this."

Niloufer, who has advised numerous women about lactation, including employed ones, says, "Some companies have a small room or a 'ladies' section which women can use to pump milk. They have a refrigerator, too, which is essential to store the milk. But many don't. Now where are the women supposed to go and pump? In the toilet?"

However, to adjust to the situation, Niloufer recommends breastfeeding mothers to get on the breast pump a few months before they actually have to leave home: "This is so the mother's body, the baby, as well as whoever is going to take care of the baby in her absence get accustomed to it." 

Explaining that breastfeeding is about demand and supply, Niloufer says that it's important for the mother to keep to a schedule: "You can use a manual pump in the toilet - if you don't have a choice - and pump and dump. You can come home and express milk into bottles for the baby. This will prevent you from feeling uncomfortable and also ensure that your supply doesn't dry up. There are always solutions around problems but it depends on whether you think it's right for you."

Under normal circumstances, a mother's body produces as much milk as her baby is drinking. So, if the baby feeds lesser, the supply begins to reduce. But since this happens gradually, as the mother's body adjusts to a lesser demand, breastfeeding mothers might find their breasts leaking when the feeds come down. 

This is why women who travel on work and are breastfeeding, travel with their pumps - even if the baby is at home! 

Though she says that in earlier generations, breastfeeding was a common sight in households, Niloufer points out that there wasn't as much intermingling of the genders as you see now in public spaces: "My daughter was breastfeeding in a fancy restaurant, wearing a nursing cover that completely covered her breasts. And there was this group of men in the next table ogling her. They couldn't see anything but they knew what she was doing. She felt really uncomfortable about it but what could she do? The baby was only five months old and was hungry!"

At a time when there's more conversation about gender equality than ever before, breastfeeding mothers still struggle for support - at the home-front where women are often told they're not producing enough milk, at the work space where there are insufficient facilities, and in society where public breastfeeding, however discreet, raises eyebrows as you go higher up in the social ladder. 

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