Word Breastfeeding Week just passed and although I wanted to desperately write a post in honour of it, I couldn’t find the words to write what I wanted to say. I have very little experience with breastfeeding as none of my three children were successfully breastfed.
When Akshaya was born quite tiny, almost five weeks earlier than her due date, everyone repeatedly told me not to worry because “with breastmilk she will gain weight in no time”. There was only one problem; my breasts were not engorged as they typically would be after birth, and I had very little production of colostrum (first milk which contains the necessary antibiotics to protect the newborn from becoming ill). Because I was a first-time mother, I utilized the help of the lactation nurse at the hospital I had given birth in, and nursed my daughter despite the pain, thinking that the milk flow will eventually come in as it sometimes tends to do. However when my daughter started wailing even after nursing and burping, I realized that she wasn’t getting the nourishment that she needed to thrive. My initial request for formula was denied by the day nurse because she thought I wasn’t trying hard enough, regardless of the fact I voluntarily saw the hospital’s lacation specialist, and advised me that breast was best. After being unable to console my daughter, I politely requested to be discharged (so that I could go home and feed my daughter a bottle) and only then did the nurse reluctantly hand over a bottle of formula. Had I known better, I would have packed my formula in my hospital bag.
While I fed Akshaya formula, I also tried nursing and pumping. I was very determined to make it work but regardless of my best efforts, my breasts returned to their normal pre-pregnancy size. I felt like a failure especially when others indirectly and directly blamed me for my lack of milk supply. You should of drank more water. You shouldn’t have been in school. You didn’t eat properly during pregnancy. And later on when my daughter developed colic, I was told that it was because I didn’t breastfeed, as if that had been my choice. I’m not going to tell you that these words didn’t bother me. Infact, I cried over my inability to breastfed quite often because I thought I had failed my daughter.
I wish I can say that I successfully breastfed at least one of my three children but unfortunately it just wouldn’t be true. I had high hopes that I would be able to breastfeed my second child who was born just a week early, but at a different hospital. Udayan was literally born hungry and the nurse suggested that I start feeding him right away while the OBGYN cleaned and stitched me up. Udayan latched on immediately, just as Akshaya had, and it seemed like I was producing more colostrum than I did with Akshaya. However just hours after Udayan’s birth I had a lupus flare (undiagnosed at the time), and my body started swelling which resulted in heavy bleeding. Since treatment was required to help manage pain and inflammation, edema, and blood clotting, it was not safe for me to continue breastfeeding Karthik. Infact the nurses took Karthik from me except for when my husband or mom came to visit, and bottle-fed him while I recovered on my own. I was unable to sit up due to the swelling, but with my determination and the help of my husband, we pumped in regular intervals for weeks, trying to establish a milk supply. Perhaps due to my body’s poor state of health, we were unsuccessful and I hesitantly gave up. This time around, I was much kinder to myself and refused to feel guilty.
While I was pregnant with Achyuthan, I was hospitalized in the last trimester from complications arising from lupus. When I was forced to induce I was already in pretty bad shape and by the time I delivered, my oxygen levels were low and I had developed a fever. The OBGYN who was on-call made the decision to bottle-feed Achyuthan so that I could receive the medication that I needed. I did not protest her decision. I knew my health was deteriorating and I wanted the medication so that I could get better and be a good mother to my newborn and go back home to my other two children as soon as possible. However, when I went back to the hospital for a routine check-up, in a wheel-chair no less, a nurse who witnessed me bottle-feed Achyuthan lectured me on the importance of breastfeeding even when I explained to her that I was on medication to manage my lupus symptoms. She simply ignored what I had to say and turned to tell my husband that we all have to make sacrifices for our kids. She obviously saw me as a bad mother, but what she failed to understand was that those meds were what was going to keep me alive so that I could be a good mother. I was horrified to hear the nurse state her opinion so blatantly but since this was my third child, I had gotten used to hearing literally everyone’s opinion and I had learned to let it go in one ear and out the other.
Maybe it is just in my head but even those of the younger generation, tend to look at me in disbelief when I tell them I didn’t breastfeed any of my children. Perhaps their reaction is due to all the positive attention that breastfeeding is gaining via social media these days or perhaps it is because we are a lot more educated on the benefits of it. I will be the first to say that I really enjoy looking at photographs of mothers breastfeeding their babies. I think it is great that we, as a society are working towards normalizing breastfeeding so that mothers can confidently feed their babies while out and about. However, for those of that cannot breastfeed, for whatever reason, seeing these beautiful pictures makes us feel just a little bit guilty. There is no denying that breast milk is best, but we also have to take into account that not all mothers can breastfeed and I wish there was more light shed on that. In cases such as where the mother is suffering from illness or post-partum depression, or has had surgery, or in cases where the baby refuses to latch on, etc. formula is definitely best. Whether it be breast or bottle, fed is best each and every time and there is certainly no denying that.
I will always be an advocate of breast-feeding first, if possible. Although formula is pretty close to breast milk, it simply is not breast milk. Many are unaware that the female body has the unique the ability to produce milk according to her baby’s needs. Breast milk also helps newborns ward off many different illnesses including pneumonia, jaundice, and cholera, while helping them develop properly. WABA (World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action), WHO (World Health Organization) and UNICEF (United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund) recommend that you breastfeed your babies for the first six months of life to reap the health benefits of breastfeeding for both baby and mother. Breastfeeding may not come naturally or feel natural but much like everything else you attempt in life, it only gets better with practice.