Breastfeeding in India

If I don’t find time to write any other post about India, I wanted to make sure to write this one.

Let me start by saying I’m a big advocate of nursing.  I nursed my son until 10 months and knew from the start I would nurse my daughter.  That was one of the reasons my doctors were okay with this trip.  When a child is nursing 100% and not mobile that’s the safest time to travel abroad. You have no water or food concerns for the baby, they don’t yet put everything in their mouth, and they can’t move and get into trouble.

Now, I have never been a large producer.  When I nursed my first son, I had a hard time.  I never produced enough milk.  As soon as I went back to work, I had to supplement, and at 6 months he even lost weight.  With my son, we did not go to India until he was 9 months old.  I took pills, I pumped day and night, and did everything in my power to make it 10 months so I could make sure he had at least some breast milk when we were in India.

Part of the reason I was determined to go to India during my leave this time was because I wanted to go when I knew my milk supply would be the strongest and my daughter would be 100% nursing.  She has been a good eater from the start and while I didn’t have the supply most women do, I had a much better supply than with my son.  I left for India confident that we had established a good routine.  She was growing as expected and had all the necessary vaccinations needed before 6 months of age.  The doctor happily blessed our trip and I was so confident things were going well I didn’t pack an ounce of formula.

Travel is stressful and parts of India were extremely hot.  These were two things I did not take into account when I thought about my milk supply.  I thought I drank a lot of water but, in retrospect, it was likely only as much as I normally drink, not any more.  At some point in the beginning of our trip I noticed that my daughter was hungrier and wanted to nurse more often.  I didn’t pay much attention to it, I simply tried to put her to the breast more often.  But that wasn’t always easy.

I currently live in the San Francisco Bay area, where nursing in public is common place.  Nursing in public in India is generally considered taboo. In India women wouldn’t even sit on a park bench and nurse under a cover.  You are expected to go to a room and be away from everyone.  I had some difficulty adjusting to this in India.  I resented having to leave the conversations with family I don’t see on a regular basis to nurse my daughter.   And on the road it’s not always easy to find a place where you can nurse in private.  So some times I would have to hold her off a little, if just to find a place to nurse.

Yes, there is a baby eating under that cover.

Yes, there is a baby eating under that cover.

Jaipur in Rajasthan, which is in the outskirts of the Thar desert, was extremely hot especially during the day.  I drank as much water as I could, but that barely covered my needs.  By our first day I noticed that my daughter was extra irritable and hungry.  By our second I realized that her diapers were not getting wet and she had not had a dirty diaper in a day or two.

I immediately knew that something was wrong.  I was nervous and scared.  I had asked the doctor just before we left for signs of dehydration in a baby, but I had expected dehydration in my son, not my daughter.  The pediatrician mentioned a sunken soft spot, no wet diaper or no tears. Wet diapers was already a problem.  I couldn’t remember the last time she had tears.  I was now worried.

I’m very lucky in a that a dear friend of mine was a medical resident who studied pediatric intensive care and worked late hours.  My husband and I decided it was time to make the call.  I told her the situation, she asked us a few questions and confirmed my suspicion.  We agreed that formula was not the best option because water was still a concern and we didn’t know the brands in India.  However, I had thought ahead and brought Pedialyte® with me for my son.  She suggested we give her a few ounces of Pedialyte nursing to help build her electrolytes and see if that helped.

After nursing my daughter we gave her her first bottle and she sucked it down.  This was a girl who wouldn’t even take a bottle before.  My heart broke as I watched her drink in desperation.  It is hard to describe the feelings I felt that day.  So many people had no trouble nursing their children and here I had practically starved mine.  I questioned my decision to be on this crazy adventure.  To drag two small children around the world.  I felt guilty for endangering my daughter and my son.  I felt jealous of those large milk producers for whom this was never a problem.  But mostly I felt like a failure.  And for anyone who knows me, that’s the lowest I can ever feel.  I heard all the naysayers in the back of my mind “You are taking a baby to India?”  “How can you do that?”  “She’s too young”.  I couldn’t help wondering if they were right.  Had I made a huge mistake bringing her?  Did I ruin my chance to breastfeed?  The doubt was crushing.

The next morning I awoke and found a wet diaper and was relieved.  I nursed and gave her another Pedialyte bottle.  She drank less from the bottle this time.  We went out and about again, but this time I went with more water and was sure to try and keep her and myself out of the heat as much as possible.  Later in the afternoon we were shopping when my son came over and yanked at his sister’s arm.  My daughter screamed like a banshee and I looked and saw tears flowing.  I had never been so happy to see tears before (or since).

Trying to stay hydrated

Trying to stay hydrated

With three or four pedi-a-lite bottles my daughter began feeling much more like her normal self and my body was able to catch up and produce enough milk for her for the rest of the trip.  My milk supply never went back to the levels they were before we went to India, but they were enough to keep her healthy and full until I went back to work.

Nursing is hard.  Every article you read tells you that your body performs magic; it will automatically produce enough for your child.  If they need more, put them to the breast more often and you will magically produce more.  Drink more water and you will magically produce more.  And for a lot of women that is the case, but it was not for me.  That moment when I realized my daughter was dehydrated I felt like a failure.  I felt like I couldn’t do this simple thing that every woman is supposed to be able to do, feed her child.  And even after she was out of the woods and having regular diapers again, I still could not completely remove it from my mind.  I felt like I failed, and I went home feeling defeated.

I have the benefit of time and hindsight now.  And looking back I would NOT change my decision to travel.  I would still go to India and I still advocate that people travel to India and beyond when they are nursing.  But I would do it with a lot more caution now.  I would say to those who travel with small children and babies to get to know and watch for those signs of dehydration.   I thankfully recognized them, and had a friend I could call.  Not everyone does, and it’s daunting to find a pediatrician in a foreign country. Bring Pedialyte, and an emergency packet of formula, just in case.  And drink way more water than you think you need.  Jet lag and different climates wreak havoc on your body.  You will need more water than you normally do.

And if it still happens, just know that you are not the first and won’t be the last.  And while at the time it doesn’t feel like it, you aren’t a bad mom. And it doesn’t mean you can’t ever travel again.  It may mean you need to slow down, but it doesn’t mean you can’t travel.  Since that trip I brought my daughter up to Mt. Shasta for Thanksgiving, and back to New Jersey in winter and spring.  And she has been a great traveler.  Travel with babies is definitely doable, and is quite enjoyable. But when taking the road less traveled, just be prepared for a bumpier ride.

Happy and Healthy

Happy and Healthy

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15 thoughts on “Breastfeeding in India

  1. Did you really find that nursing was taboo in India? An Indian friend of mine (recently relocated to Singapore and expecting) complained to me that although nursing was accepted anywhere and everywhere in India it seemed taboo in Singapore. I assured her that I feed anywhere and everywhere in Singapore and have never had a problem. I had the idea that it would be less accepted in San Francisco. There is obviously something more complicated in the way these things are viewed or come across.

    • Thank you for your question. I want to be clear and say that the nursing is not taboo in India, but public nursing is taboo among the emerging middle class. You will still see the poor nursing publicly on the sidewalk. But you do not see many women of means sitting in public nursing with or without a cover.

      However one thing I will say is with the emergence of a middle class with more money to spend, I actually found support for nursing mothers better in Mumbai malls then I find here in the Bay Area. Each mall I went to had several mother’s rooms. These were private rooms only for women to nurse, and had facilities such as changing areas and an attendant to clean on a regular basis. So do all the airports. And the Mom and Me chain in India had a room to nurse complete with a Nursing pillow for use and a poster on the wall with instructions on how to get the baby to properly latch.

      My family was 100% supportive of me nursing and I thank them for that. In fact by offering me a room to nurse in private they were showing me their support. India is definitely nursing friendly. Just not public nursing friendly. And for a social person for myself, that was the hardest thing to adjust to.

      • Ah, I begin to see the nuances! Singapore has been through a rather formula-happy phase lately, so that may have been mostly it (and perhaps she was referring also to poorer women in India). It’s interesting to know about different parenting behaviours, expectations and methods. In fact, sometimes it can be quite reassuring to know that opinions vary!

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  5. Very good post. Many women do not produce that much milk for the babies. And many times, they are made to feel like failures! Not true. Just the twists and turns of nature. Enjoy!

  6. Hi, I’m taking my baby to India she’ll be 6 months. I’m not Indian my husband is, so it’s a scary thought for me! Just wondering if you were giving your daughter solids when you were there? I’m also breastfeeding. Do you have any other tips about what to take with me? Or any tips at all?

    • I took my son when he was 9 months, so he was 1/2 formula, 1/2 breast feeding, on solids, AND crawling. I’m not going to lie, at times it was a difficult trip. A few things that helped:

      I brought baby food with me. It was heavy, but I knew it wasn’t sold regularly in India, so I wanted to be prepared. My mother in law also made some food for the baby, but only ever used bottled water for cooking. He ate a lot of pressure cooked lentils and rice 🙂

      I only ever made formula with bottled water. If you use Enfamil, I suggest buying the individual sticks that make 4 oz at a time. Not only does it make traveling easier, but we had an issue were the heat caused a can of formula to spoil faster once opened. We thankfully had brought way too much, but it was a pain to throw out almost full cans.

      Only ever make formula with bottled water, never boiled tap water. If it’s a short trip or your child doesn’t drink much formula, consider bringing the ready made bottles.

      Bring Pedialyte in case they get dehydrated. Works great at all ages.

      Once in India buy a quick dry baby sheet. It’s soft on one side and water proof on the other. People lay their baby down on it diaper-less. Heat can cause diaper rash, so using this allows you to let the baby be alfresco at times without worrying about accidents.

      Finally at 6 months they likely won’t be crawling yet, but they might be mobile. Be vigilant and aware, generally Indian homes don’t baby proof as much as we do.

      And most importantly, enjoy your trip. Likely there will be so many arms happy to hold your baby they’ll never touch the ground and you might even get a break! Enjoy, it’s really a special time and a trip you’ll always remember.

  7. Thank you so much for writing this article and to the people who have left comments. We are leaving for India in 10 days and while my husband is Indian, I am not. My biggest concerns with our trip is sleeping (that he won’t get good naps in and that it will be hard to sleep with him in bed with us as we doubt there will be access to a crib or pack-n-play), and breastfeeding (I’m not sure where to do it while we are out and about). My son will be 10.5 months and is almost walking. Our trip is less visiting family and more tourism. I really appreciate an additional tips. Thank you again!

    • Enjoy your trip! You’ll find modern India has lots of places to nurse. All the malls and shopping complexes have nursing rooms, as well as the airports. And people will bend over backwards to help you with the baby. I will say, going with a 10 month old will be a bit of a challenge as now you will have to contend with food. Use the Pedialyte if he gets sick and dehydrated. In a pinch, coconut juice also has a lot of electrotypes. And note, baby proofing is not a thing there so…have fun with that…

  8. Hello! I’m traveling to India with our 4-month-old next month and am concerned about breastfeeding (using a cover) in public as I don’t want to offend while I’m visiting a foreign culture. Has public acceptance of nursing using a cover improved since your original post in 2013?

    Another concern is mosquitoes. We will take anti-malarial medications before we leave but any advice on mosquito nets, etc. while traveling? Should we bring our own net or are they available in budget hotels?

    Thank you and appreciate the advice!

    • Hello, great questions! If a nursing room was not available, I did use nursing covers in public. I tried to do this in more modern areas, such as a mall or restaurant. I tried to avoid it outdoors, but sometimes it couldn’t be helped. Generally you’ll only really have issues if you start nursing without one.

      As for mosquitos, I used an herbal lotion that was safe for babies 6 months and above. My daughter was 3 months at the time, but I figured it was worth the risk and my doctor agreed. Some new studies say deet is fine for babies 2 months and older. Do your own research and check with your pediatrician to see if you feel comfortable using a deet product.

      We did not use nets. Instead we always stayed in hotels with air conditioning. I find the nets to hot to sleep under. However if that’s not an option or not in the budget, make sure a net is available BEFORE you arrive.

      My last piece of advice is to tell your pediatrician your plans. Mine was able to move up vaccination schedules so my 3 month old had all the vaccines a 6 month old as. She was also able to give me advice as to what signs to look for if you suspect dehydration, and meds to bring along just in case. It makes one feel much better and more prepared.

      Finally, enjoy! India is a magical warm place, and I’m sure you will have the trip of a lifetime!

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