women's narratives

‘It’s totally worth it’: Experiences of women who breastfed their children while at work

August 1-7 is World Breastfeeding Week. Scroll.in speaks to three women about how they manage their babies’ feeding schedules around work.

While mothers are often made aware of the benefits of breastfeeding, there is little conversation around how difficult the task can be, especially when the child is just born.

The World Health Organisation recommends that mothers exclusively breastfeed their child (with no other food or drink) up to six months of age, with continued breastfeeding along with appropriate complementary food up to two years of age.

But for working mothers, when maternity leave draws to a close and the mother chooses to go back to office, many questions arise. For instance, should they wean their baby, pump breastmilk, or find a way to breastfeed at work?

Breast pumps are devices that can extract milk from the breasts of lactating women. The milk can be stored in a refrigerator or freezer. Women can express breast milk without these devices too, by using their hands.

 Manual Breast Pump
Manual Breast Pump

While some women choose to switch to baby formula as an alternative or supplement to breast milk, there are some who manage to juggle breastfeeding with their busy work schedules. This is particularly challenging, because breast milk needs to be pumped at regular intervals, which means women have to find a way to pump or feed at work.

The WHO states that nearly all mothers can breastfeed if they have the right information and the support of family, the healthcare system and society at large.

The Maternity Benefit Act, 1971 was amended in March where the maternity leave for women in the organised sector was increased to 26 weeks or six months, up from 12 weeks. The law also requires every establishment with 50 or more employees to provide creche facilities. But these benefits leave out 96% of the women who work in India’s unorganised sector, said experts.

As the world marks August 1 to August 7 as World Breastfeeding Week, an initiative to protect, promote and support breastfeeding, Scroll.in spoke to three mothers who managed to breastfeed their babies while simultaneously working. They said the support from the workplace and their families was crucial.

Dilraz AR Kunnumal with her son
Dilraz AR Kunnumal with her son

‘Pumped breast milk in the prayer room’: Dilraz AR Kunnumal, Communications Professional, Doha

I went back to work full time when my son was two months old and I would be away from him from 7.30 am to 2.30 pm. I was looking forward to going back to work. It was important for me to be in a place where I was valued and respected as more than a mother.

I tried to organise my work around my pumping schedule. My team was great and I didn’t want to inconvenience them. I used the prayer room facilities to pump breast milk. I read online about how women pumped in their workplace and spoke to mother’s online groups.

I built a stash of (chilled) breastmilk. I would give a day’s supply of milk to the nursery near my office where my son spent the day. The baby’s nannies at the nursery told me that they would warm the milk and feed him. They even helped me reach the right amount of milk my baby needed for each feed.

My boy is now 17 months old. I’m hoping to definitely feed till he is two, and then we’ll see how we both feel about it.

Keep in mind that some days are tougher than others, sometimes you will need to pump more and some days the output will be minimal. And that’s all okay. Set shorter term goals. Say, “let us see how this week goes, how this month goes” and so on, for three months, then six months.

Moulshri Joshi with her son
Moulshri Joshi with her son

‘Carried my baby to work’: Moulshri Joshi, Architect and Professor, Delhi

My daughter was just over five months when I went back to work at the School of Planning and Architecture. My job involves teaching large groups of young adults in a studio and lecture setting, and extra-curricular responsibilities such as wardenship of the student hostels.

As I was not open to the idea of pumping or formula-feeding, I decided to wear my baby to work.

In the early months, I had the support to choose a time table which didn’t need me in class early morning or kept me back for eight hours at a stretch. But there were also days when I would be needed to make visits to the hostel at unearthly hours and those nights, the baby would be on my back. Sometimes I would express breast milk in a saucer for my husband or mother to feed her with a spoon.

There was no crèche or day care facility in the school. There was not even a changing room or a faculty common room.

My colleagues, the students and the staff were all very supportive. Many men would be too embarrassed, awkward or shocked when they saw me feeding or carrying my baby to work.
But in general, people held doors open, offered a seat and shared their lunch. I felt like I was left alone to cope with something that was clearly my family problem and not a social responsibility.

I converted my worktop into a changing station in my room that I shared with a very generous senior colleague, a woman. This is also where I would often feed my baby. I also fed during long meetings, but I did not feed in class and refused to feed in the washroom.

I remember hosting a day-long conference that I organised and chaired one month after going back to work. I wore a red sari to work that day, teamed with the black baby carrier and my parents waited in the parking lot to back me up with support if the baby cried or needed a diaper change.

All I remember of those first few weeks was the exhaustion. The sheer mental and physical labour of doing at least two things at the same time in a public space – guarding and nurturing the baby (“Is the diaper soiled? Is she too warm? Are there mosquitoes here? I need to use the washroom myself”) and working, which in my case involved critiquing a design project. My daughter weaned at three years and I am now breastfeeding my son.

Of course, it gets easier over time. Sadly it is not because we have daycare at work or washrooms where fathers can change diapers. It is presumed that couples and families will somehow manage this most commonplace phenomenon of rearing children. This is the reason children and breastfeeding mothers are invisible in our workplaces and in our cities.

We need to make workplaces friendly to babies, mothers and caregivers.

Prutha with her daughter
Prutha with her daughter

‘Laws support breastfeeding mothers’: Prutha Amal Pai, Administration Manager, Goa

The moment my daughter turned six months old, I resumed work. I didn’t think twice about it because I was dying to get back to my routine. Besides, my mother was going to look after my daughter in my absence and I was confident that she would take better care of my baby than me. I was away from my baby for a total of nine hours.

I read about pumping and how to store milk. There are various groups on Facebook where experienced mothers help out. I bought a new pump, storage bags and bottles and started my pumping journey. A little dip in my supply was the only challenge, which was sorted rather quickly with all the information out there. Besides missing my daughter tremendously, nothing else bothered me. I’ve been nursing for over two years now and hoping to let my daughter self wean.

As for tips, I’d say consider pumping at work. Talk to your boss or human resource manager. There are laws out there that support breastfeeding mothers. Weaning is a choice ultimately. But don’t wean if you want to continue, especially when so much help available. Make it work for you both. It’s totally worth it.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
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