As a healthcare professional, I always recommend mothers to exclusively breastfeed their newborn(s) for at least the first six months, provided it's viable for the mother. Breast milk is a unique source of vital nutrients and provides fat, protein, vitamins and antibodies which promote optimal growth and development in newborns boosting their immune system. However, breastfeeding is not without challenges.
Beyond the usual– sore nipples, engorgement and a deluge of emotions that breastfeeding brings with itself, social and professional factors also contribute to the predicament of breastfeeding, especially for working mothers.
While the support from their spouses and family members has an influence on them, workplace environments play an important role in their decision to breastfeed. Inadequate facilities in workplaces often push working mothers to stop breastfeeding even before the six-month mark.
According to a survey conducted by NTUC U Family, a total of 51% of the mothers shared that they stopped breastfeeding because of workplace challenges. Many perhaps leave their jobs as well, as many employers are not accommodating to the needs of new mothers. Owing to this, India currently ranks 78th in the World Breastfeeding Trends Initiative (WBTi), which collects data from 97 countries.
The WBTi survey highlights that only 55% of babies in India are breastfed for six months, which is indeed an alarming number. To address this, a target has been set by India to raise the exclusive breastfeeding rate to 69% by 2025. But this is only possible through consolidated efforts taken by society, employers and government. Mothers, especially working mothers need to be provided with encouragement and safe spaces to breastfeed.
Having worked in this space for over 30 years, I’ve seen multiple cases of working mothers struggling to breastfeed and based on that experience, here are a few ways to navigate through the common challenges:
Managing Milk Supply
One of the primary concerns for breastfeeding women returning to work is maintaining an adequate milk supply for their infants. When separated from their babies during work hours, it can be challenging to find time and a suitable place to express breast milk regularly. Additionally, the stress of juggling work responsibilities and pumping can also negatively impact milk production.
Establish a Pumping Routine: Begin pumping before returning to work to build a stash of frozen breast milk and get accustomed to pumping regularly. Aim to pump at least every 3 to 4 hours during work hours to maintain milk supply.
Speak with Your Employer: Open communication with your employer about your breastfeeding needs is essential. Discuss the possibility of having a private and comfortable space for pumping breaks.
Invest in a Quality Breast Pump: A reliable and efficient breast pump can significantly ease the pumping process and save time. Consider investing in a hospital-grade electric pump if possible.
Dealing with Potential Stigma
Unfortunately, some women face stigma or lack of understanding regarding breastfeeding in the workplace. Concerns about coworkers' perceptions or comments from colleagues can create stress and anxiety for working mothers, making it challenging to continue breastfeeding comfortably.
Know Your Rights: Familiarise yourself with the laws and regulations regarding breastfeeding in the workplace. For instance, The Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Act, of 2017, entitles breastfeeding mothers to a crèche at their workplace.
Educate Colleagues: Raising awareness about the benefits of breastfeeding and normalising it can help reduce stigma. You can share information with your coworkers or organise educational sessions if appropriate.
Finding Support Networks
Feeling isolated in the workplace can be emotionally draining for breastfeeding mothers. Without a support network, it becomes more challenging to navigate the challenges that arise.
Join Support Groups: Seek out local or online breastfeeding support groups. These communities offer a platform to share experiences, tips, and encouragement.
Connect with Lactation Consultants: Lactation consultants are valuable resources who can provide expert advice and guidance tailored to your specific needs.
Involve Your Partner and Family: Engage your partner and family members to be supportive of your breastfeeding journey. Their encouragement and understanding can make a significant difference.
Time Management and Self-Care
Balancing work, pumping, and caring for a baby can be physically and emotionally taxing. Many working mothers struggle to find time for self-care amidst their busy schedules.
Prioritise Self-Care: Make time for relaxation and activities that help you de-stress. Adequate rest, a balanced diet, and regular exercise are crucial for overall well-being.
Simplify Your Routine: Find ways to streamline your daily tasks, both at work and home, to create more time for yourself and your baby.
Ask for Help: Don't hesitate to seek assistance from family or friends. A helping hand can provide much-needed relief during demanding times.
The decision to continue breastfeeding while returning to work is commendable but it comes with its fair share of challenges. So, it’s important to seek support, communicate needs and practise self-compassion throughout this transition period for new mothers. Achieving a balance that works for you as a mother is crucial because there is never a one-size-fits-all formula here. It’s a time for mothers to put themselves and the well-being of their newborns first, and both are not mutually exclusive.
Authored by Dr Bharati Dhorepatil, Infertility specialist, Obstetrics & Gynaecology, consults on Practo.
Suggested reading: World Breastfeeding Week: Let's Stop Shaming Formula-Feeding Moms