To celebrate World Breastfeeding Week, we showcase Mums we met who prevailed through challenges in nursing, parenting and health - despite the odds against them.
Charissa’s story is particularly unique, not because she struggled with breastfeeding initially but also because she had some problems getting baby to wean off the breast. Hers is truly a tale of gratitude and realisation that enabled her to give all that she could to baby Shao Qi with the love, understanding and commitment of husband Ken Goh as well as family, helper, friends, her bosses and the larger breastfeeding community.
It truly takes a village to raise a child and for those who are particularly struggling, that’s a powerful thing to lean on.
What were your thoughts about breastfeeding before birth?
Before I gave birth, I had naively thought that everything would just happen naturally! I did not do any research, believing that when baby comes out, I would know just what to do. Obviously, it turned out completely different!
I had to learn that baby had different latching positions, about how to hold baby – all that. But one thing I was firm about was to breastfeed. This was the one thing I did read up on, that research shows all the benefits to baby, such as how mother’s milk has antibodies that’s good for babies’ immunity, brain and development and how it promotes bonding.
So how was the post-birth experience like?
I was pretty lucky to have my colostrum come in immediately after birth and during skin-to-skin time with Shao Qi, his mouth was naturally opening and closing. I fed him on the spot with the nurses helping. It felt like a super miracle; my baby was latching on and drinking and I didn’t have to do anything! He just searched for my nipple. I thought that breastmilk would kick in just like colostrum and feeding would always be as easy.
But on Day 4, my boobs were hard as rocks, and the confinement nanny was not able to help. I had to manually squeeze out my milk above sink trying to relieve the engorgement and through the pain, agony and tears, continued to try to feed baby.
That must have been a nightmare for a new Mum. How did you manage things?
It helped that I knew others in the same situation. I have a friend who gave birth two months before me and she was the one who advised me to hand express, but not too much to avoid oversupply. My husband is very hands-on carrying and handling baby when I couldn’t. My Mum also came over, and taught me some methods which helped. My family support was super strong.
Throughout my entire nursing journey I also worked with a lactation consultant who was awesome! She taught me many things about latch positions, cues to look out for, bonding with baby, managing engorgement and regulating supply.
It was then that I also learned about full latching and feeding on demand. The nanny kept wanting to bottle feed Shao Qi. I was adamant that she shouldn’t, to avoid nipple confusion. So this meant I was always with the baby to feed him on demand, to the point of neglecting myself. But I felt happy; I was nursing with love and whenever I was feeding and looking at him, I didn’t want to stop.
Glad things worked out for you there! Did you have any breastfeeding “a-ha” moments?
I realised that breastfeeding is really a learning process not just for me, but for baby and Mum together. It also helped me to really care of Shao Qi. It was not just about popping him on my boob (which I always did at first, to make him stop crying). I really learnt to pay attention to his needs. Sometimes he nurses not out of hunger but comfort. At 8 months old, his cries means different things to me now that I can differentiate.
I also realised that oversupply and having a lot of milk is not necessarily a good thing. It means having to deal with engorgement issues. Also, I used to spend a lot of time over the sink or with the consultant trying to work out problems, which takes time away from baby.
What was it like when your maternity leave was up and you had to go back to work? Did you manage to continue breastfeeding?
From when Shao Qi was about 3 months old, we started to offer him a bottle in preparation for my return to work. For over a month, he kept rejecting it and would cry and refuse to eat. I was really in a state of panic when things didn’t change a week before I was due back at work. We tried giving a bottle again, feeding with a cup and syringe – nothing worked. He would cry and drinking milk became an upsetting affair.
Eventually, my family and I came up with a plan. I would latch Shao Qi for a full feed before work and at night, and come home during lunch time also to latch him. My Mum, husband and helper were all on board to help! They would distract and pacify him until I’m home. Mum especially will try and not give up offering the bottle and he when he got really hungry, he would drink a little bit!
Do you think you could have persisted if you didn’t have the right support?
Definitely not. I mean it took everyone’s commitment to make sure that Shao Qi is being attended to until my lunchtime feeds. It was truly amazing family support! On one occasion, I had to do a media event at night for the launch of a new product at a hotel. My family even brought baby there so that I could feed him.
It made me see that to have success in extended breastfeeding sometimes takes more than mother and baby; the whole family may need to have a game plan. No one from my family blamed me for giving in or Shao Qi for bottle refusal; we just worked together to make the best out of our situation.
I also could not have made it work without a company that is pro-Mothers and bosses who were supportive. I was honest about my situation with breastfeeding and being parents themselves, they encouraged to persevere and didn’t stop me from going home during lunch to feed Shao Qi.
How are things like for you right now? What are some of the reasons you decided to persist with breastfeeding despite these challenges?
Things are looking up! Two days ago, mum tried giving him the bottle again and Shao Qi didn’t fuss at all. He held the bottle by himself, not sucking but biting and chewing on the teat. I thought it was a good start!
What's the most memorable part of being a Mum for you? Can you share the high and low points of this journey? Any learnings?
My high points are getting to see Shao Qi growing up and witness all his milestones, like when he was doing tummy time and raised his head, his first smile, being able to decipher his cues, watching him grow and growing with him as well.
I think mothering doesn’t necessarily come naturally just because we’re women. We are all learning on this journey and need to be less hard on ourselves. My boobs are not the same as before because of the battle scars from squeezing blocked ducts. My body is also not the same as it was pre-pregnancy but that’s okay because my body birthed life and I have my Shao Qi.
How would you encourage a fellow mummy who may be facing similar challenges as you did and is struggling to continue breastfeeding?
I would definitely say, do not be afraid to reach out. Just keep asking and be very thick-skinned! This was how I got the help I need to breastfeed at home during lunch, for my bosses’ understanding and from the Hegen team when my pump didn’t work and when Shao Qi refused the bottle at first. That even got Yvon, founder of Hegen, to come to my home!
Also, don’t be afraid to say that you don’t know how to do something. At first, I didn’t know how to breastfeed properly, use a pump, or even carry my baby. It is ok not to be on top of everything. Ask for help.
To those who are struggling, I say don’t stop trying to breastfeed, even if struggling. Just keep offering baby your breast and keep pumping. Above all, family support counts most of all. Hegen too has also become part of my family!