When Priyanka Sharma* resumed her job after her maternity break, she was tensed like every new working mother. She worried about her daughter, how she would feed her, would she get a nanny to take care of her at home or if she should take her to a crèche near her office.
“Leaving the house and emerging from under the rock after the break came with huge challenges and major self-doubt.”
Every mother has a unique breastfeeding story. It is the first challenge they tackle on their motherhood journey. Breastfeeding remains an integral part of the baby’s growth and development. The dilemma for most working mothers is whether to leave their little ones at home with a caregiver, take them to the office with you or to keep them at the crèche.
The World Health Organization recommends that a newborn should be breastfed for a minimum of six months. They also mention that the weaning process can continue up to two years. With Indian Maternity Laws allowing 26 weeks of maternity leave, which used to be only 12 weeks until recently, many working mothers in India are unable to breastfeed their babies for the duration that they desire.
The issue gets dire as most workplaces are not equipped with facilities to help resolve the concern for breastfeeding mothers.
Currently, India ranks 78 in the World Breastfeeding Trends initiative (WBTi) of 97 countries that participated. Only 44 per cent of infants in India initiate breastfeeding within the hour of birth. Additionally, only 55 per cent follow exclusive breastfeeding for six months, according to the national data sources. India has set a target for an exclusive breastfeeding rate of 69 per cent by 2025.
Working mothers find no support from companies on this
Working mothers, without any fault of their own, have a big share towards these unsatisfactory breastfeeding rates. They are unable to exclusively breastfeed their infants though they understand its importance. The lack of breastfeeding facilities at workplaces force the mothers to switch to alternatives such as formula milk or animal milk.
An exploratory research study conducted by the Indian Institute of Human Settlements (IIHS) surveyed 120 working mothers, have found out that only 27 per cent of the respondents could continue to breastfeed exclusively during working hours. Additionally, 35 per cent resorted to packaged or powder milk, and 44 per cent fed their infants’ other fluids as well.
Over 70 per cent of working mothers feels breastfeeding is a challenging experience. Another 34 per cent find lack of nursing facilities as the biggest challenge at their workplace.
These are some specific challenges that companies need to address
Radhika Sinha* who worked at an IT communication company 10 years ago recalls her experience as a struggle. She returned to work after 3 months of extended maternity leave and continued to breastfeed her baby as she transitioned back into her job.
“I could breastfeed her in the morning before leaving and at night after I returned home. I tried to express milk and store it in the refrigerator so that it can be used while I’m away.”
She had to switch to formula milk soon as she could not keep up.
The guilt of being unable to feed the baby whenever they are hungry, the physical difficulties associated with full leaking breasts and the psychological trauma of having to use restrooms to relieve the pressure on the body, causes severe stress to the working new mothers. It can also impact productivity at work.
Surbhi Gupta* worked at a newsroom and struggled as she tried to keep with her work-life balance after a maternity break. Being a female herself, her boss was supportive and empathetic towards her hardships. But the overall lifestyle change started taking a toll on her.
“Maybe I was overthinking this, but it felt weird. I wanted to feel normal and productive, but a large part of my time went into watching my baby on CCTV, calling to see if everything is okay, taking power naps to recover from the exhaustion, and pumping milk in the editing room that nobody was using,” she shares.
“I ended up feeling like a ‘special case’. My productivity went so low that it gave me serious self-worth issues. I ended up quitting for this reason. I thought I would Rejoin but what happened was far from that.”
Neha Singh* mentions that while she initially did not have any major problems after maternity break as her company was supportive, in time it led to a compromise in her career. “I realised that it came at the cost of a promotion. I had my priorities clear and didn’t want to breastfeed at the cost of my career.”
The unintentional work policies, lack of empathy and understanding forced her to stop breastfeeding.
Here’s what Indian companies can do to aid new mothers
Workplaces in India need to be equipped with breastfeeding conveniences for the new mothers. Most companies in India do not have specific facilities to assist lactating mothers and that need to be improved.
Workplaces need to inform all employees to understand the challenges that a new mother faces while returning to work. They should equip them with the means to be more empathic to their fellow colleagues. They also need to provide moms with facilities to aid breastfeeding. Lactation rooms are one of the easiest options to implement in this regards. A basic lactation room requires a clean, private and comfortable space, which is not a bathroom, where mothers can use breast pumps in a relaxed atmosphere. It will be helpful to install a refrigeration unit for storing expressed milk.
Mayuri Dhar* initiated this step in her workplace. “I spoke to the admin and converted one extra sick room that we had into a pumping room.” It did not just help her, but all new mothers, ensuring that they could continue breastfeeding their babies in a clean and stress-free environment.
As a working mother, even you could take the initiative to approach your employer for helping nursing mothers. Talk to the employee wellness manager at your company with the idea and collaboratively determine the best options.
One thing that Mayuri missed the most during her maternity was a crèche service at work. Despite the maternity law in India requiring offices to provide a space for newborns, many companies are lagging behind.
Some places, however, like IBM India has a Childcare Centre in Bangalore to help employees. They provide care for children as young as 3 months old and since the facility is on the same campus, breastfeeding mothers can drop in to feed the babies and then return to work at their convenience.
Not all companies may find it feasible to build a crèche on their campus, but something as simple as a flexible work schedule also helps a lot as breastfeeding at work gets easier.
The exclusive breastfeeding target can be met only if we break the breastfeeding barriers for working women India through stronger legislation that enables women to achieve positive breastfeeding outcomes.
*Names changed to protect the privacy of the women at their workplaces.