Breastfeeding and going back to work: Women share the stigma and struggle

Is breastfeeding and going back to work convenient? For World Breastfeeding Week 2023, we asked working women about the challenges.
Woman breastfeeding her baby
New mothers must read up and understand the correct way to breastfeed to avoid complications. Image courtesy: Adobe Stock
Radhika Bhirani Updated: 7 Aug 2023, 19:07 pm IST
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For the World Breastfeeding Week 2023, Unicef and World Health Organization chose the relevant theme of “Let’s make breastfeeding at work, work”. In the pursuit of increasing exclusive breastfeeding rates to a global target of 70 percent by 2030, the need for greater breastfeeding support across all workplaces is being emphasized upon. And rightly so. Even though paid maternity leave in India may have been increased from 3 to 6 months, breastfeeding and going back to work isn’t exactly a cakewalk for women.

WHO and Unicef on supporting breastfeeding for working women

Lack of infrastructure, as well as physical and emotional support, are to blame for the struggle and stigma women experience while trying to manage breastfeeding when they return to work. Even global health organisations are of the opinion that supportive workplaces can play a key part in improving exclusive breastfeeding rates.

“Evidence shows that while breastfeeding rates drop significantly for women when they return to work, that negative impact can be reversed when workplaces facilitate mothers to continue to breastfeed their babies,” reads a joint statement on behalf of WHO and Unicef for World Breastfeeding Week 2023.

Health Shots reached out to working women to discuss the challenges of breastfeeding while returning to the workplace, and how they overcame it and what can be done to support their journey. After all, the benefits of breastfeeding are important for both the baby and the mother.

Breastfeeding while working
Breastfeeding can be a challenge for working women. Image Courtesy: Shutterstock

Pumping stations and refrigerators for breastfeeding mothers are a must at work: Shikha Bisht, an HR Manager at a media firm

I am a mother of twins (how to breastfeed twins). Keeping my milk supply up, managing time with twins and also taking care of myself has been very challenging. I am currently pumping twice. Since my kids are mostly on solids, we give them milk in the morning before I start work, and once at night before they go to bed. My workplace has given me an option to work from home and be in office if necessary. This gives me the independence to work and also check up on my kids simultaneously. My family has been supportive of breast pumping.

Since my kids were premature and they were in the nursery for a month, they did not latch on, so I have been pumping from the start. I feel that for a workplace to be supportive towards breastfeeding mothers, pumping stations and a refrigerator that lets mommies store the milk while they are at work and pumping, can be helpful.

Also read: Is it okay to use a breast pump? This is what a lactation expert has to say

Stored mother’s milk is not bad: Krity Gosain Ahuja, Senior Director-Social Media at a PR firm

I joined back work after 6 months of my son’s birth. He was exclusively breastfed till 5 months. It took me a while to convince my family that stored milk is not bad. I got him used to a bottle feed a month before my return to work. This was mostly managed by the nanny or his grandmother. I started pumping and storing breastmilk a month in advance. My office didn’t have a dedicated room for breastfeeding, but when I asked them, they made arrangements for me in a room near the kitchen. I used to carry an electric breastmilk pumping machine to pump twice during the office hours, store it in the office freezer and take it back in a cooling bag.

On days when I was working from home I used to breastfeed directly. I loved breastfeeding my son, but it became taxing, especially managing between work meetings. In this entire process, the knowledge gap between older generation and our support groups was huge, so the biggest struggle was to convince them that I am producing enough milk. My biggest support system was my husband who stood by whatever I decided to do. I really think fathers need that kind of trust and knowledge to support their partners in this beautiful yet tiring journey.

Breast pumps for breastfeeding mothers
Breast pumps are a Godsend for working mothers. Image courtesy: Adobe Stock

Workplaces are ruthless towards new mothers: Vaishali Sharma, a parenting blogger

I preferred the work from home option both the times because workplaces are ruthless and they just don’t care much! In fact, even when I visit restaurants I am not allowed to breastfeed in public. I am politely asked to go sit in some corner. Worse: A lady manager at a 5-star restaurant showed me the way to the restroom! What is lacking is solid support and infrastructure and lack of clarity when it comes to a pregnant or a new mom rights.

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Why I never chose to rush back to work even after a year or two of having a baby is the fact that workplaces in India do not respect time hours. They feel like giving maternity leave is a favour they do to new moms. There aren’t proper daycares or similar structures attached to organisations where moms can leave their babies and yet be available to them for feeding purposes.

Pumping milk was never an option for me because my babies never took to bottles from day 1. They needed skin-to-skin touch, which is also a huge step towards creating g a bond and helping babies thrive better. Would a workplace understand this? Breastfeeding is a full-time job btw! On top of it – women work- from home or in office. There clearly is no force that supports such acts of juggling.

Watch this Health Shots interview with Neha Dhupia on breastfeeding!

Trusting anyone that the child will be fed is a challenge: Dimple N Rakhiani, an HR Consultant

I am managing my breastfeeding journey by pumping and the family supporting in the feeding process. My workplace has given me 2 months of work-from-home in addition to the six-month maternity leave to help me have enough time wean the baby. My family has been very supportive as far as breast pumping is concerned, but pumping itself is something that has to be done alone. The only physical support that someone can provide is by feeding the pumped milk to baby.

Leaving the child and trusting anyone that the child will be fed, is one of the biggest challenges. In terms of making workplaces supportive for breastfeeding mothers or moms to infants, a creche should be compulsory in office. At least a room can be provided in every office where new mothers can bring in their baby (till the baby turns 1.5 yrs) with or without support and can manage work life with balance.

My baby goes wherever I go for meetings: Chahak Roda, an entrepreneur

As an entrepreneur, I feed my baby on the go and even in between meetings. My baby goes everywhere I go for work and meetings as he is still just 7 months old. I was hesitant and unsure about pumping initially, but I get a lot of support and encouragement from my husband to do so. In fact, he’s the one who enjoys feeding the baby from the bottle instead!

The biggest challenge as a breastfeeding mother who wants to go out is the lack of feeding facilities at public places. At a shopping mall, I was very happy to find a special nursing room. On the contrary, a popular food hub in Gurugram, could not dedicate a small area to a feeding room. It was unacceptable. As a community, we need to be supportive of breastfeeding mothers.

Breast pumps are a boon for working women: Deepanjali Chandna

When I gave birth to my son, I was scared and confused about what was happening to my body. Doctors kept checking if the pores of my breasts were opened for milk to come. Little did I know about the breastfeeding challenges that I was about to face… I couldn’t breastfeed him despite being fully engorged due to anatomical reasons. I thought that would be the end of breastfeeding for me and my son.

When I was discharged, my own mother supported me in my breastfeeding time. As I was in a lot of pain, my mother used to hold the baby and I was feeding him. With the passage of time I am now able to handle him with care and feed him properly. I am currently on my maternity leave and soon I will soon be getting back to work. There is an obvious fear of how I am going to continue the process. I was exclusively feeding breastmilk to my son, and started using a manual pump. Currently I am searching for some good electric breast pumps so that I can pump in any place and anybody can feed my milk to the baby through a bottle.

Breastfeeding tips for working women
Women who are already balancing their lives can be a great source of breastfeeding tips for working women. Image courtesy: Shutterstock

How to make workplaces friendly for breastfeeding mothers

According to WHO and Unicef, family-friendly workplace policies are a win-win for not just working women and their families but also employers. These benefits include more economic returns by reducing maternity-related absenteeism, increase in retention of female workers, and reduction of costs of hiring and training new staff.

In the journey of making breasting at work, work, offices need to start being liberal about giving paid maternity leaves, breastfeeding breaks and create a room where mothers can breastfeed or express milk.

Be it formal or informal sectors, or organisations that work with women on temporary contracts, they need to do the following to support breastfeeding:

* Give women regular breastfeeding breaks and facilities that enable mothers to continue breastfeeding their children once they return to work
* Provide sufficient paid leave to all working parents and caregivers to meet the needs of their young children. This includes paid maternity leave for a minimum of 18 weeks, preferably for a period of six months or more after birth
* Increase investments in breastfeeding support policies and programmes

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About the Author

Radhika Bhirani is a journalist with close to 15 years of experience in the Indian media industry. After writing extensively on health, lifestyle and entertainment, she leads the English content team at Health Shots. She has a special interest in writing on mental health and wellness. ...Read More

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