Early this year, Nidhi Parmar Hiranandani, a new mother based out of Mumbai, found herself in a fix. It had only been a month and a half since the 42-year-old filmmaker had a baby boy when she realised she had too much breast milk stored away but lying unutilised.
“My home freezer kept filling up,” Hiranandani told VICE. “And I had read on the internet that breast milk goes bad after three-four months in a home freezer. By then, I had about three packets of 150 ml each, waiting to be used.”
When she approached her friends and family to ask what could be done of the excess milk her baby didn’t need, they came up with various solutions. Some suggested making face packs, while others said they’d bathed their babies in it. Some told her they just threw it away. “There are also salons who use it to make creams,” she said. “But I found these ideas very silly and wanted my breast milk to have a better use.”
Internet surfing led her to breast milk donations in the U.S., and she started to look for donation centres closer to home. Finally, Hiranandani’s gynaecologist recommended a Mumbai hospital, Surya Hospital in Khar, which has had a breast milk bank since last year.
But just before she was about to donate her milk to the bank, the nationwide government-mandated lockdown to contain the growing coronavirus pandemic was invoked in March. The hospital, however, assured her a zero-contact pick-up from her doorstep.
Since May this year, Hiranandani has donated around 42 litres of breast milk to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) of the Surya Hospital, which has 65 active beds. A majority of the babies in the NICU are underweight and premature, often put in incubators here without their mothers. In some cases, their mothers have preconditions or are on medication, and hence cannot breastfeed.
“I went to the hospital very recently to finally see how my donation is being used, and I saw around 60 babies who really needed milk,” she said. “I then decided that I will keep donating at least for a year.”
Data on infants with low birth weight is not effectively tracked in India, but available studies show that there’s a high prevalence of Indian children below five years of age being malnourished. Like in many other countries, India too has hospitals with human milk banks to help out babies who don’t have access to their mothers’ milk.
In fact, India’s first human milk bank—located at the civic-run Sion Hospital in Mumbai—has existed since 1989. Donated human milk, doctors say, is the best alternative for babies whose mothers can’t make milk or have medical conditions that make breastfeeding impossible. The Indian Academy of Pediatrics has set out guidelines for human milk banking, too.
However, there isn’t much awareness. “You’ll find these donation banks if you go looking for them. But most people don’t even know they have the option to donate breast milk,” Dr Munjaal V Kapadia, a Mumbai-based gynaecologist, told VICE. “That’s usually the first and the biggest hurdle: not knowing.”
Last year, Bollywood actor Neha Dhupia spoke about donating breast milk after she had her first child in 2018. “But there is a social stigma that has more to do with people feeling icky about taking someone else’s breast milk,” says Kapadia. “Our society is also a little regressive when it comes to things like this.”
In a country like India, Hiranandani’s efforts would be considered unconventional. Some, in fact, are prone to take offence too. Breast milk, or even breastfeeding, conjures up stigmatised conversations around new mothers and how they should conduct themselves in public.
In 2018, a cover of Malayalam magazine Grihalakshmi, which featured an actress breastfeeding, triggered nationwide controversy. The cover, and the ensuing campaign, aimed at removing social stigmas around breastfeeding. It took the Kerala High Court to rule that breastfeeding is not “obscene”.
It’s rare to have a discussion about breast milk, let alone donating some. Some of the silence comes from new mothers too. “Firstly, not many new mothers know about breast milk, especially those in their first pregnancies,” said Kapadia. “Their first source of information, more than family and friends, is the internet.” Then there are the hurdles outside their control.
A small survey in 2017 had found that only 44 percent of Indian women breastfeed their babies within one hour of their birth. One of the reasons stated that health workers undermined their confidence in breastfeeding. Another survey in 2018 found that 70 percent of Indian mothers found breastfeeding challenging, with reasons ranging from not having helpful family and friends, to not having any space to breastfeed.
Yet another study from 2019 revealed how women refrained from donating their milk, fearing that it would lead to a shortage for their own babies.
“People tend to talk about breastfeeding or breast milk donations in close-knit circles, but as a society, we don’t talk about it at all,” said Kapadia. Hiranandani too was subject to awkward silences and questions about breast milk donation. “I was discussing with a family member about talking to the media about my donation, and she said, ‘How can you talk about this in public?’” said Hiranandani. “I asked her what the stigma or trauma around this is, because it’s just breast milk. But then she realised she was being silly.”
“We don’t realise the kind of biases we are brought up with,” she added. “It becomes so inherent. There are people who think they can’t talk about it but once I have discussions with them, they actually wonder why they’re feeling so shy about talking about it. What’s the big deal?”
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