Ups, Downs and Upside down – My breastfeeding journey

I was fast asleep. Something  soft was pressing against my face. I tried to brush it away, only to realize that it was my daughter’s stomach. Her head was on my chest, blissfully breastfeeding upside down. I then flipped her, snuggled close and went right back to sleep.

Breastfeeding an infant is often taken for granted. After all, the female body is designed to nourish its young ones. But for many mothers it poses serious challenges. A sure stopgap solution for any challenge a woman faces while breastfeeding is industry prepared formula, which comes nowhere close to the natural liquid gold. While there may be some genuine cases where formula has been helpful in feeding a baby, more often than not its use has been abused.

Birthing issues

I conceived when I was living in Dallas, US. During this time, I too, took breastfeeding for granted. My mind was wandering when the instructor in the Bradley childbirth class was explaining about pumps and feeding bottles. How could anyone feed their baby in plastic bottles, when they have two perfect body parts designed just to do that (how little did I know)?

At 37 weeks of pregnancy, I was diagnosed with Intra-Uterine Growth Disorder (IUGR). I went for an ultrasound and was told that my baby is not growing well. After my midwife (my primary care giver) consulted with her doctor, she suggested that it would be best to induce labor. Our concern for our baby took over and we agreed to everything she recommended. I later found out that for most women with IUGR, the prescribed treatment is bed rest and eating highly nutritious food. Unfortunately, at that time we were unaware of these options. In retrospect, I should have questioned my midwife about it. But it was also her responsibility to give me options and help me make an informed decision, in which she failed.

“After a reasonably gentle, natural birth outside the hospital, without painkillers, without unnecessary interventions, our daughter was lying in an incubator, with tubes sticking out and wires running through her tiny body.”

After being induced, my daughter was born vaginally in a freestanding natural birthing center. She was 1.98kgs at birth and was declared Small for Gestational Age (SGA). SGA babies typically have trouble maintaining normal body temperature. She was immediately transferred to a Neonatal ICU (NICU). And her first food was drops of formula and not the perfect food that was waiting for her, made just for her.

Formula – The forced option

After this, our whole world started spiraling downhill. I remember being very angry and feeling betrayed when I found about kangaroo care. According to Wikipedia, kangaroo care is a technique practiced on newborn, usually preterm, infants wherein the infant is held, skin-to-skin, with an adult. Kangaroo care, named for the similarity to how certain marsupials carry their young, was initially developed to care for preterm infants in areas where incubators are either unavailable or unreliable. It is a natural, baby-mother friendly way to help maintain body temperature.

After a reasonably gentle, natural birth outside the hospital, without painkillers, without unnecessary interventions, our daughter was lying in an incubator, with tubes sticking out and wires running through her tiny body. The system functioned precisely as it was designed to – force-feeding technology and blind trust in expert opinion as opposed to nature-given care perfected over generations. Why weren’t we informed about our choices when she spent one week in the NICU, when I was struggling with pumping? When I was confused after her doctor told us that the only way we could take her home was if they could measure and declare that she was “eating” well? Here the “eating” meant guzzling up formula from a plastic bottle with a plastic nipple. This was a very vulnerable phase in our lives and it came as a shock to me that my daughter was getting formula. But I so badly wanted to be at home with my baby that I convinced myself that her getting a few more bottles of formula is okay and we can just get back to breastfeeding once this ordeal is over.

Incubation time

Time at the NICU was very stressful for all of us. I was forced out of the hospital room after just a day. We ended up renting a room at the hotel inside the hospital premises just to be close to her. I made trips from the hotel room to the NICU every two hours to hold and nurse my baby. In the time spent away from NICU, I was pumping to make sure that I would be able to breastfeed later. I was tired, emotional and distraught. But for a week we kept up this routine, in the hope that our daughter will be home soon. On one of the NICU trips, I spotted a pacifier in my daughter’s mouth although we had made it very clear that we did not want it. I was mad! There were Lactation Consultants (LC) at the hospital, but two sessions with them left me feeling even more helpless and drained.

By this time, our daughter was having a lot of formula and hardly any breast milk. The hospital grade pump I was using was not as effective as she would have been, had we been allowed to nurse round the clock. A close friend who had an older nursing daughter pumped and sent us her breast milk. I was grateful that she would be getting less formula and more breast milk. But due to strong opposition from my family I had to stop giving her that precious milk. I wish I had not, but exhaustion coupled with confusion led to this decision.

Chetana Kulkarni and a 5-month-old Disha.

Once we finally got her home, I was determined more than ever that she should be breastfed. I was hoping to wean her off formula at the earliest. It was already a week since birth and I had not yet established my supply. I hired another LC who recommended that I continue pumping. So, I nursed, pumped, nursed and pumped round the clock, pumping eight times a day. But still I wasn’t making enough milk. I cried every time I gave my daughter a bottle of formula. Little did I realize that the more formula she had, the more my supply got affected.

The learning curve

Pumping memories are bitter sweet. My husband and I used to sit and watch movies (Tarantino was a particular favorite) in the nighttime pumping sessions while our daughter slept. We listened to music. My husband used to sing to her and bounce her on a big exercise ball to calm her as I went through some marathon pumping sessions. He also used to wash all the pump parts and sterilize all the bottles. His presence during non-office hours was such a blessing and lifted my spirits.

“[My husband's] presence during non-office hours was such a blessing and lifted my spirits.”

On my LC’s suggestion we visited a chiropractor. She helped us realign our daughter’s spine. During childbirth, a baby’s spine can loose its alignment due to the stress he/she undergoes. The chiropractor also massaged her cheek muscles to loosen them up. We went for these sessions once a week, for two months. I was unable to gauge if this really helped our breastfeeding but went along with it.

I was in constant touch through phone, chat and email with a La Leche League (LLL) leader. Though she was a stranger, it was somehow more comforting to pour my heart out and express my anguish to her. She encouraged me to keep up the fight. She told me something that I will never forget: while it is very important to breastfeed, it is even more important to enjoy being with my baby. All those conversations gave the courage I needed and made me feel better.

After 2.5 months of pumping, eating every possible herb and food to up my supply and doing everything possible, our daughter was still having formula. I was not myself and realized it was affecting my relationship with my child and husband. I had had enough of pumping, so I decided to stop. My LC told me to just breastfeed her once in the morning and once at night and continue giving her formula. I was quite resigned. Then a friend of mine suggested that I continue breastfeeding before offering formula. Which, thankfully I did.

Later as months passed by, I felt confident enough to reduce her formula slowly. Around 8 mos we had halved her formula consumption. At this time we moved back to Bangalore. I weaned her off formula at 11 mos. All this time we continued to nurse. I had also introduced her to ragi and some vegetables and fruits after 6 mos. Once we stopped the formula, it was as if a burden had been lifted off my shoulders.

I was very initially self conscious about nursing in public (NIP) even during the few times we all went out for walks in parks. I remember feeling stressed which did not help as my daughter would sense my discomfort and cry out in protest. She wanted a happy mother.

Breastfeeding at last

I was very fortunate to meet an acquaintance who was also a new mom. We went on to become very good friends and spent a lot of time together, indoors and outdoors. Seeing her NIP and hearing her talk about her experiences was very helpful. In her own way, without any pressure, she showed me how easy it was.

We breastfed on treks, visits to the parks or at friend’s homes. In Bangalore, we nursed on moving motorbikes, on bus and train rides. Anywhere and everywhere (except the loos, of course)! It was an instant remedy for tangled overwhelmed nerves or a tired body. Breastfeeding gave me downtime too, as more often than not I would be asleep along with our daughter.

As time passed, I had seen, heard, learned and read about child led weaning. There was enough evidence and I was convinced that this was the way forward for us. Despite repeated, well-meaning advice that she will not eat or gain weight if she continued to have breast milk, that she will become very dependent on me, that extended breastfeeding is not good. Despite questions on how long I will breastfeed, if I still had milk, and how I could nurse my child in front of strangers. Despite being ushered into bedrooms in relatives’ homes when I started nursing her in the living room full of people. Despite stares interspersed with a few smiles, we continued. Not for us the designated nursing rooms becoming ever so popular in malls.

Chetana says she shares a bond closer than ever with a much healthier Disha, now 3-and-a-half years old.

It’s been three years and five months now. Breastfeeding has helped us stay close and has helped my child through some rough emotional and physical phases. Has helped her drift off to sleep – day in and day out. Has helped her recover from the trauma of her first blood test, from infections and provide a source of nutritious food while nothing else was palatable.

Our society needs to support our mothers with the wisdom women have passed on from generations, with an unconditional trust in our own bodies to do what they are meant to. Breastfeeding has taught me to be kind, patient and compassionate. It has helped me forge everlasting friendships and experience the kindness of strangers. Above all it has helped us grow as a family, in more ways than even fathomable. And for all of this, I am forever grateful.

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  • aravinda

    Beautiful, beautiful story! You have been so strong in overcoming the serious challenges you faced right from the beginning of motherhood. And you are brave today in sharing your reflections on the painful times as well as the eventual comforts and joys along the way. Many mothers will draw courage from your story, and overcome initial difficulties, knowing that breastfeeding will go on for years and the qualities nourished will last a lifetime.

    • Chetana

      Thank you Aravinda. I could not have done this without your constant encouragement and support. You are a store house of useful, practical information.

  • sejal

    wonderful story chetana :)

  • Swapna Deshpande

    Highly inspiring!!!
    I can completely understand your situation as my d daughter, being a 30 weeker premie, was in NICU for almost 7 weeks.Although pumping does help to get your breastmilk and fill the little tummy of your baby,breastfeeding gives satisfaction to both baby as well as the mother and helps speedy recovery .

  • PG

    I had it much easier, no doubt. And am thankful for that. Congrats to you, Chetana for overcoming your troubles and for showing courage to share your story.

    With my first-born in 2009, I was hell bent on exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months, but no one would hear of it! My baby was delivered was by c-sec after a long labour, and too bad that I lost out on that precious initial closeness with my baby. But thankfully we caught up soon and established a great feeding routine. Come 20-odd weeks and everyone wanted to have a say in what I was feeding my baby, how come no top feed?, try formula, cow’s milk is great for babies- the works! It was so tough convincing even my poor mom that my baby only needs my milk and NOTHING else, ‘cos she was at the receiving end of lots of free advice.

    I remember the first time (after 6 months) when I tried formula, my baby flew out out my hands. My usually calm and contented baby got this fake energy that scared my husband and me.. we promised never to try formula again and promptly dumped the entire packet.

    Being among the first in my friends circle to have a baby, I told ALL my girlfriends to cherish breastfeeding as the most unique experience of life… and they couldn’t agree more! I am now expecting our second and due in early 2014!