In the post-natal stage, the mother, all other things being equal, becomes obsessed with breast-feeding. In India, during my growing-up years, most women took breastfeeding in their stride, and it was a common sight to see mothers feed their babies in public.
Since most mothers were able to take time off from work, I think the stress and pressure was somewhat less. I say this with the caveat that in our patriarchal society, the stress any woman would experience remained. However, since the woman went to her natal home, at least for the birth of her first child, the stress of having to fend for herself and manage the family and work was often absent. The grandmother and other relatives would help with suggestions (definitely some unwelcome) so that the new mother did not feel lonely and overwhelmed. The entire ambience being less stressful, also helped to establish breast-feeding and milk letdown.
In today’s scenario, where the mother has to plan to go back to work soon or where in countries such as the US there is hardly any consistent support from natal families, childbirth can be highly stressful. The post-natal period proves to be extremely challenging with breast-feeding remaining a huge mystery that needs to be decoded by lactation consultants and their like. You hear of breast pumps, their accessories, flanges, bottles and hospital-grade equipment, and you are flabbergasted.
I wonder whether I have forgotten my own experience. Had it been that complicated? To jog my memory, I talked to several of my friends again; and while all of them talked of being taken care of by their parents and being pampered, breast-feeding did not seem a great challenge that had to be tackled by bringing in experts. I guess the experts were then available at home.
In Boston, paediatricians are obsessed with weighing the baby periodically—at seven days, 10 days, 15 days and so on. And then, they find that the baby is below birth weight. And then, of course, they advocate formula supplementation (artificial milk). And this worries the mother, who ends up feeling stressed, which in turn affects milk letdown. Paediatricians have another solution to the problem of scanty breast milk. Pump, they say. Yes, you have these breast pumps, which simulate the suckling action of a child, and draws milk through a tube into a bottle. The bottles of milk can be given to the baby whenever it is hungry. It is convenient for working mothers, but is not an ideal solution to help an already stressed mother in increasing her breast milk production.
Charaka in his Samhita has addressed this issue at least 2,000 years ago. In this, he has given a list of herbs that help increase breast milk. I would like you to take a guess as to what these herbs are. They are, quite rationally, the same food that we give our cows. It consists of various grasses, darbha (Desmostachya bipinnata) and kusha (Saccharum spontaneum), cotton seed and other herbs. There are two main preparations called stanyajanana kashayam and stanyajanana rasayanam. The ingredients of stanyajanana kashayam, which was first enumerated in Charaka Samhita, have been reiterated in Ashtanga Sangraham. Ashtanga Hridayam gives the recipe for stanyajanana rasayanam, which has a jam-like consistency. Both these preparations help to greatly increase breast milk.
The writer is retired Additional Chief Secretary of Tamil Nadu. She can be reached at sheelarani.