Sneha Dutta is an Electronics and Communications engineer by education. She was hired by Deloitte Consulting India Pvt Ltd straight from campus. In her 7.5 years with them, Sneha developed into a SAP Human Capital Management consultant. She had several short and long stints abroad but was based out of Hyderabad. Let’s hear it from her, “It was a different life. I was very performance oriented and devoted most of my time to work. Incidentally, the first day of office as a full time employee was when I also met the gentleman who would go on to be my husband.” Read Sneha Dutta’s to know how important it is to trust yourself.
1. Sneha, you had begun your preparation well before your delivery. Tell us a little about it.
I lost my first pregnancy to an early miscarriage. The grief was unexpectedly strong. It was in the process of recovery that I decided to look outside the corporate realm and rediscover myself. I suffered from PCOS, and another pregnancy was indicated to be difficult without medical intervention. That’s when I decided to take a break from trying and visit my parents. I was to start the recommended treatment after I returned. And just that very month, I conceived. I went home with a little pea in my uterus whose unbelievable heartbeat I had seen the day before I flew.
Every day of my first trimester was spent reliving the horror of the last miscarriage. Once into the second, I relaxed a little and began to read up. I decided to stay back in Hyderabad and deliver there. For most of my pregnancy, I was alone with my husband . I had the time to read, absorb and reflect a lot. Prepare myself mentally for what was coming. I had a really supportive gynaecologist from the second trimester onward. My parents arrived a couple of weeks before the baby was due and left a month after. Since then it’s just been the two of us with the baby.
2. So can we safely say that you were prepared for your upcoming breastfeeding journey?
I was a well-informed pregnant woman, but unfortunately, my reading didn’t include a lot about breastfeeding successfully. I attended all the antenatal classes my hospital had. Breastfeeding was covered briefly in a newborn handling session. Two words stuck with me that day – EXCLUSIVE and 6 months. What I had read was that obese women with PCOS, GDM and Hypertension were unsuccessful at breastfeeding. I filled in all the check boxes for breastfeeding failure. It worried me, so I put breastfeeding on the back burner and decided to deal with it when the baby came.
3. The baby was born. How was the ground reality?
The baby came by elective c-section and swallowed meconium on her way out. I couldn’t do immediate skin to skin that I had been dreaming about. She was an intrauterine growth restriction (IUGR) baby and weighed 2.3 Kg at term. My first thought in the operation theatre was – TINY ! My breasts will suffocate her!
I nursed her in the recovery room. It was tough because she was so small and my nipple seemed too big. She kept sliding off but I kept trying. I had two lovely nurses who were there by my side till I left the hospital. Some guardian angel had gotten the most amazing nurses in pediatrics assigned to my baby. They were constantly there, helping me hold her, teaching me different holds, urging me to try despite the pain. They came with clockwork regularity every 30-45 mins and put the baby on my breast. When the baby was unlatched and done, they would only leave .
On the second day, the baby was screaming like only a 2 day old can scream. Her phototherapy had begun because the billirubin levels went above the acceptable limit. My angels were there “tum pilao amma.. tension nakko.. normal hai” (trans: You continue to nurse her. Don’t take tension. This is normal). To my mom they said, “formula formula nakko bolo aunty.. unko confidence do..” (trans: Don’t keep saying formula formula aunty, give her (Sneha) confidence). To my husband they said, “Kisi ko disturb nakko karne do inko”. (trans: Don’t let anyone disturb her (Sneha)).
They literally walked me right to the door with love and instructions. I was blessed to have them.
From then on, we were on our own. I had discovered kellymom and considered it the Bible. I still do. A lot of it was learning on the job – cluster feedings, growth spurts, engorgement, and colic. I learnt all about it.
4. God sent angels those nurses were. How did the journey proceed once you got home?
My husband was there beside me like a rock – filling bottles of water, getting me pillows, feeding me while I fed the baby, setting two hour alarms and waking me up. He fell sick the first week due to exhaustion. My parents, sister and her husband were managing the house and chores. We politely declined all visitors and video calls and I only nursed and nursed. Some days I only got up for a pee or poop. Baths became alternate day affairs. I was racked with doubt about my baby’s growth, like all new moms. But I followed my instincts. It was so exhausting! I was tempted to get that tin of formula several times just to be able to hand her over to my husband and get some sleep. But he kept me strong through the cluster feeds, long nights, and screaming sessions.
I didn’t really have family around me after the first month. So though it was very hard, it was good in a way because I didn’t internalize any myths they might unintentionally pass on to me. I did read about the myths and was able to recognize them as myths and ignore them. However, something that many people told me was not to lie down and nurse and I believed it for a while.
I didn’t lie down and nurse till my daughter was about 3 months old and I joined Breastfeeding Support for Indian Mothers (BSIM) on Facebook. Many people had told me that it was dangerous. I also didn’t co-sleep initially because she was TINY and I was so afraid of squishing her. These I think were the biggest mistakes I made.
Thankfully, all the myths were quashed by BSIM. The next one is going to be co-sleeping from day 1. We will have to figure out a huge super king size bed because now my daughter isn’t going away from my side till she is ready.
She is now just about 1.5 years old and the nursing relationship is going as strong as ever. She has dropped a couple of day feeds and spends more time playing, but as I am home, I am still able to nurse her 6-7 times on good days. I have decided to let her wean on her own.
5. How has your experience with paediatricians been?
I was assigned to the paediatrician who was present at my daughter’s birth. She had good diagnostic skills but unfortunately little knowledge about breastfeeding; apart from the fact that it must be done for 6 months.
I was given instructions to time restrict feeds to 20 mins per side (which I didn’t follow) and so on, the usual. But to her credit she asked me to feed on demand. I decided to part ways with her when my baby was 4 months old. I wanted to nurse my sister’s daughter. But she was strongly opposed to it as she felt that not enough milk would be left for my daughter.
I went in search of an IBCLC and also posted my query on BSIM. When I was reassured that this was in fact incorrect, I began my search for a new paediatrician. We were very lucky to find a very BF friendly paediatrician soon. We were in her care for about 3 months and then I travelled to the US.
Initially in the U.S, we couldn’t find a BF friendly paediatrician initially. We would just go for vaccinations and well, baby checkups and I kept nursing discussions off the table. It took us a while but we eventually found a BF friendly paediatrician when we moved from California to Washington.
6. Tell us about your journey from an engineer to a Lactation Counsellor (LC).
Around the time baby was 3 months old. She was going through a massive growth spurt and I was exhausted. Formula discussions were on the table. I recalled that another one of my new mom friends had mentioned this wonderful group on FB. In one of those never ending nursing sessions, I sent a join request to BSIM, was accepted and instantly hooked. It was like I had found a missing family.
When I joined BSIM, I didn’t know that people with non-medical backgrounds could become LCs. I saw some of these lovely, composed, logical and factual answers on BSIM and always wondered where these ladies had learnt it all from. Of course, one’s own nursing experience counts, but these were clearly expert replies. They were clearly not doctors. I did a little research and found that it is possible to formally learn about breastfeeding and counsel families even if you are not a medical professional. It was a revelation for me.
I had read up a lot about breastfeeding by then, and was able to answer many questions online and offline (for my newly pregnant friends). It was around my daughter’s 5 month mark that my husband casually suggested that I should get myself trained and certified, since breastfeeding was clearly very important to me. To be honest, at that point, I wanted to do it for my daughter so that I was able to do the right thing by her. But there were always doubts as to whether I could manage with a little baby. My husband encouraged me and slowly I began my certification program. As I went through it, I found that I was able to answer and help many many more moms on BSIM. It was then that I began to give it a serious thought. I find babies and mothers fascinating, and the angle of service appealed to me a lot. Although my corporate job paid me well, I wasn’t satisfied. I wanted more control on my time with my family. Most of all, I felt happier than I had ever felt when someone found my advice useful.
With some hesitation stemming from the financial aspect, I finally put in my papers and bid goodbye to my first and only employer. I decided to study breastfeeding in depth even after I had completed my certification.
I was invited to be a Peer Counselor in March 2017 and then moderator in July 2017. It was a great honour for me to be included in the team behind this wonderful group. I accepted wholeheartedly both times.
7. Not everybody finds it easy to let go of a well-paying job with the intention of helping others. It definitely is a huge step. Kudos to you. But that was not the first time I believe.
My sister had certain medical conditions because of which she made an informed choice not to breastfeed. But I really wanted my niece to have the benefit of breastmilk for as long as I could offer. My sister was kind enough to accept.
I didn’t know much about pumping then and had imagined that I would just directly nurse the baby.
This is about the time I parted ways with my first paediatrician. As the baby’s arrival approached, I could sense my sister’s hesitation. She, like my paediatrician thought that there wouldn’t be enough left for my daughter.
But as things turned out, I did end up feeding her. She didn’t take to formula and would vomit out whatever she was given. I took this opportunity to ask her wonderful doctor Dr Gaurav Jawa at Apollo Cradle Royale in Delhi, if I could continue to offer her breastmik. He immediately said yes. So there began my pumping journey. I pumped every 4-5 hours and whatever I could express was given to my niece alternated with formula feeds. Breastmilk helped her stomach settle down and accept the formula.
I continued to pump, increased my water intake and was able to build a decent stash for my new baby doll. The stash lasted her the two weeks I was there and few more weeks after I left. By then she was accepting formula much better. We didn’t know about donor milk then and neither were we told.
Once I got back home, I gradually dropped pumping sessions and let my supply drop back to normal.
8. Breastfeeding is not easy for all. What were your challenges?
I think my biggest challenge was my daughter’s size. She was TINY. It was difficult to position her initially on my obese body and ample bosom. The c-section didn’t make it any easier. I felt so overwhelmed by the responsibility of raising her that I almost had breakdowns. But somehow that also empowered me. I knew she would reach her full potential only with breastmilk and somehow I managed to persist.
She couldn’t suck well initially, and that led to bad phases of engorgement. Fortunately, kellymom came to my rescue and I was able to deal with it. Then came the growth spurts, cluster feedings, and crying in the evenings. My mother couldn’t help me much. The doctor suggested top ups. I was not even on BSIM then. People would look at my one month old and ask how many days she was. I was borderline depressed. But my husband kept me strong and going. He kept telling me to go back to the basics that I had learnt from Kellymom – she had adequate wet and poopy diapers, she was gaining steadily and she was active. I was on track. Fortunately for me, she was never ill. I kept praying to unknown powers not to let her fall ill because she would lose the little weight she had gained.
I like an idiot, believed everyone who told me not to lie down and nurse, till I joined BSIM. So imagine sitting long nights through cluster feeds and growth spurts. It was crazy! I could not get over my fear of co-sleeping. So every time she needed to nurse, I would need to get out of bed, nurse her, soothe her and put her back in her crib. It was really draining and I was contemplating putting her on formula feeds for the night.
We began to travel a lot from the time she was 2.5 months old. With no crib, we were forced to co-sleep and that very gradually helped me get over the fear of co-sleeping. I also began to lie down and nurse around the 4 month mark. It took a while to get the hang of it but I can honestly say these two things saved my breastfeeding journey. It also helped that my daughter no longer wanted to sleep in her crib from somewhere around the 4th month mark. We ditched the crib completely then.
One fine day at around 4.5 months, she stopped nursing. I had no idea what to do. She would scream bloody murder every time I tried to nurse her. Looked up BSIM, and turns out that this was my first brush with a nursing strike. My husband took us both out for a long drive. Drives made her happy. By then I was also babywearing. So I went topless in the house, with her in a front carry in a wrap. Eventually she began to nurse again. It was a very frightening experience.
9. Nursing strikes are indeed frightening. I am glad your breastfeeding challenges did not last too long. How was your experience with nursing in public (NIP)?
We began to travel a lot when the baby turned about 2.5 months old. Most of it was domestic air travel, with a few long road trips thrown in. Initially, I used a cover that the hospital had thoughtfully provided. But it was really uncomfortable for the baby. My husband encouraged me to look for other options. I bought a few nursing tops and began to use a scarf. But nope, baby wouldn’t have that either. So I had no option left but to try the two t shirt method. I became more confident with passing time. I have nursed her in wide variety of settings – temple lines, government offices, buses, flights, airports, boarding buses to flights, clothing stores, shoe stores, grocery stores, cars – you name it, I’ve probably done it!
In India, I found that nobody cared. No one batted an eyelid seeing a nursing mother in public. And that was a pleasant surprise for me. Abroad, I have faced some criticism but nothing bad enough to traumatise me. Nursing in public is as normal as eating in public to me.
10. It seemed like you did not need anybody else with your husband standing by you, rock solid, supporting you in your decisions and also by lifting you up every time you felt like you were in the dumps and ready to give up. Tell us more about how you managed it all.
Initially, my parents were there for a month. Then it was just Yash, my husband. He was my support system and a very strong one at that. Even with my parents present, we decided to do everything for the baby ourselves and I feel in hindsight that it was a very good decision we made.
I had wonderful and affectionate household help – a cleaning maid and cook. With them looking after cleaning and cooking, and my husband managing laundry, errands and all other chores, I was able to focus on the baby completely. Even with help and me at home, it was difficult. I salute mothers who work outside the home. They are a different league of awesomeness.
Now we are abroad with no help whatsoever and still manage on most days. Months of practice doing things for baby, OPOS cooking and a helping husband have been my saviours. We get tired to the bone by the end of the day but then who said any part of parenting was easy?
11. In reality, how difficult is breastfeeding inspite of it being the most natural thing? And, then we have the “well-meaning” advices too.
People don’t tell you what’s coming. All media and art portrays it as automatic and effortless. But then there is suddenly a crying screaming bundle in your arms and you’re figuring out what to do with everyone telling you that your milk isn’t enough. You’re dealing with hormones raging all over your body, sheer physical exhaustion and the pain of childbirth. You feel like you have failed and that kind of trauma can break a person. Antenatal education about breastfeeding is absolutely essential. Families (not just mothers alone) need to be told the facts – cluster feeds, growth spurts, nursing strikes, fussiness – these are all real. They need to know that not every cry indicates hunger. They need to know that babies should not be fed on schedules. Mothers need to be told about breastfeeding agitation too. It’s a subject not often discussed and leads to massive guilt in an already overwhelmed mother.
Families also need to be made to understand that Formula is not a magic potion. My niece is formula fed. She still woke up every couple of hours in the night, went through growth spurts, and had endless feeds. Cleaning, sterilizing bottles and making formula is work too. So why not share the breastfeeding mother’s load and give her comfort instead of pushing her to formula?
I was told by all and sundry that my daughter is skinny because I don’t feed her enough. She will never wean if I don’t wean at the year mark. She will have cavities because I nurse at night. I was even told that she isn’t walking because she is nursing. I have learnt to turn a deaf ear to these. It hurts sometimes. But they don’t know my daughter like I do.
12. It’s been an unexpectedly difficult start to your breastfeeding journey. How often did you want to give up?
Several times. I was determined to exclusively breastfeed for the first 6 months. But the intensity of a baby’s need is overwhelming. I spent my first few growth spurts propped up on pillows nursing for hours because I was adviced to not nurse while lying down. It was my husband’s support and my tiny little bundle that kept me going. I have not dealt with nursing aversion yet. But I am aware of them, so I am hoping I will be able to handle them. A very important thing I have learnt from Adhunika Prakash (the esteemed founder of BSIM) is to never take a nursing decision on a bad day.
13. That is an advice a lot of us look up to and I am sure a lot of us follow diligently too. Signing off, what would be your advice to all mothers?
For expectant mothers – READ UP about breastfeeding during pregnancy itself. That is the time to learn.
For new mothers – Find your rock and cling to it. Find that one person who will stand by you, keep you honest about your goals and support you wholeheartedly. It can be your spouse, mother or friend. But you MUST have someone who will listen to you when you are up nursing at 3 am and wondering why on earth you decided to have a child.