For Bharathi Kalyan, getting back to work four-and-a-half months after her son was born was quite an ordeal. She took three months maternity leave and used up much of her paid leave before she went back to work.

Kalyan works at a technology company in Chennai and estimates that of the roughly 1,000 employees, more than 400 are women. She said that although no one told her she couldn’t take more leave, they indicated that her performance appraisals might be affected by a longer absence.

Kalyan’s biggest anxiety was: Would she be able to breastfeed her son?

Experts around the world recommend that babies be exclusively breastfed for the first six months of their lives. Breastfeeding supplies essential nutrition to infants, transfers immunity from mother to child and also helps in stimulating mental and emotional development in the baby. A newborn needs to be fed between seven to nine times a day, every one-and-a-half to three hours. This is one of the many reasons why new mothers find it hard to return to full time work immediately after they have had a child.

While breast pumps now make it possible for mothers to store their milk, most offices haven’t created spaces for pumping.

Kalyan spoke to her office administration in the days before her return to work asking for a space where she could pump milk and a refrigerator to store it. She only got a lukewarm response. “They said I could possibly use one of the meeting rooms or the sick room if no one else was there,” said Kalyan. “Storing the milk was also a problem because there was just one single-door fridge on our floor that was used by many vendors. I was feeling very insecure about it. I don’t want to give my baby stale or tampered milk.”

Compelled to quit

Shweta Singh hadn’t believed that she would be able to return to work four months after delivering her baby. When she was pregnant, the crèche on the tech park campus in which her company is located was still being set up.

Singh now leaves her baby at the crèche she can walk down to every few hours. She has never found the need to use it yet, but her office also has a private room she might use if she needs to nurse her child or pump breast milk. Singh knows that she is among the more fortunate new mothers across the country.

“I have friends who have had to leave their jobs,” said Singh. “A friend who worked at a bank had to quit after she got pregnant.”

Problems of scheduling, physical difficulty in producing milk and reluctance to breastfeed at work for fear of criticism from colleagues are other factors that deter women from resuming work, according to Payel Biswas Soo, a lactation specialist who also consults with the Bangalore Birth Network.

Too shy to pump

Kalyan eventually managed to get an administration manager to listen to her request for a separate freezer for breastfeeding mothers in the office to use. But it also made her ask how others were managing. They were not.

“When I spoke to the other mothers, I was shocked,” said Kalyan. “They never pumped at work. When they felt full, they would just go to the restroom and empty it all. So all the milk would go waste.”

Kalyan’s colleagues who didn’t pump at work, had all joined work in the same three to four month time frame after their children were born and so, Kalyan surmised, their children were being fed formula.

“If you don’t normalize breastfeeding then at least one mother is going to feed her baby formula,” said Meghana Naidu, a lactation peer counselor in Bengaluru.

Kalyan said that her only options for lactation spaces at work were the sick room, a restroom or her car. She has been making daily trips to the sick room for the last 10 months.

As this year's edition of World Breastfeeding Week draws to a close this weekend, Kalyan, who is part of a peer group called Breastfeeding Support for Indian Moms, is advocating breastfeeding over formula feeding at various fora. At her workplace, she is trying to get other new mothers to latch on to the benefits of breastfeeding.

But even companies need to be sensitised.

Few takers

In preparation of World Breastfeeding Week this year, childbirth educator Arpitha Shankar contacted ten companies in Bengaluru asking whether they would like her to conduct breastfeeding awareness programmes for their employees. Only two, a technology giant and a small communications company, invited her to do so.

“[Companies] seem to be enthusiastic if one wants to talk about heart attacks or diabetes but they seem to be apprehensive about breastfeeding,” observed Shankar, who also runs a programme called the Bangalore Birth Network to help new mothers in the city.

In a conference room at the communications company where Shankar and her colleagues from the Bangalore Birth Network conducted their workshop, about 60 chairs were laid out for participants but only eight were occupied. Six women and two men, all from the human resources department that had organised the session, showed up.