India has approximately 50,000 births every day, but there are only about 14 milk banks across the country. Not many are even aware of milk banks, yet their benefit can be immense in a country where malnutrition among babies, among other reasons, is a pressing concern. In Chennai, second-time mother Sharanya Govindarajalu has taken it upon herself to spread the word. She has been donating breast milk to the city’s Kanchi Kamakoti CHILDS Trust Hospital for over two months now.
“When I was pregnant with my second child I joined an online Facebook community called natural parenting and it was there that I came to know about exclusive breast feeding, meaning feeding your child only breast milk until the age of 6 months,” she says.
“While it seemed like a challenge initially, with help and support of the online group and my immediate family I started the journey.”
Sharanya manages a business while taking care of her two children. Due to lack of awareness about the benefits of breastfeeding, Sharanya had not exclusively breastfed her older child. The second time around, she wanted to ensure that she practised it in true meaning and spirit. In her words, “I was armed with a lot more information as well as the second time. It was on the natural parenting community that I first read about milk banks. Wahida Satish Kumar, a donor herself and a friend of mine also proved to be a great source of encouragement and support to me.”
Initially, Sharanya was only looking at stabilising her own milk supply. In the process, she realised that she would be in a position to donate the milk as well. She started scouting for milk banks where she could donate the milk.
“My husband is a regular blood donor and many a time when the requirement would be for my blood group, he would encourage me also to donate. I am morbidly afraid of needles and hence have never been able to do that.”
“I am so happy that I am atleast able to donate milk and help these tiny babies.”
It was a challenge to find a place that efficiently stored the milk. “I was sure that I needed to find a place that would value the milk and not let it go to waste,” she says. It was after much research that she decided on Kanchi Kamakoti CHILDS trust hospital. She also mentioned another hospital in Vadapalani, called Vijaya Hospital that has a milk bank.
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“Logistically, the Kanchi trust worked better for me and hence I chose that. I visit the hospital 5 days a week and donate up to 150ml to the milk bank.”
“When I started donating the milk, I had assumed that it would be for full-term babies who either have difficulty in latching or whose mothers have difficulty in lactating immediately after delivery,” she says.“When I was asked to visit the neonatal ward what I saw shocked me. There was many pre-term babies, some the size of my palm and they were being fed through syringes and spoons. It was only then that it struck me that these milk banks are truly the need of the hour.”
Speaking about her family she says that they have been extremely supportive. Her daughter accompanied her to the neonatal ward and when she walked out urged her mother to continue donating milk for as long as she can. She was so shaken by what she saw.
“My daughter has been a part of my second pregnancy, from seeing my belly grow to feeling the movement. Seeing such small babies in the hospital shook her and she was filled with empathy for them.”
“Seeing my daughter feel what she did has been so precious to me.” Sharanya says that she is filled with embarrassment when parents thank her for this. “Donating milk is the least that I can do for these babies,” she says.
In order to ensure that the milk she is pumping reaches the baby, she ensures that she meets the mother before doing so. “I encountered one parent who asked me how much I would charge for the milk and that left me vulnerable. I have started ensuring that I meet the mother and ascertain that the milk is indeed being given to the baby and won’t be sold to someone else.”
She understands the anguish and the anxiety of parents whose babies are in the hospital and feels that this is her duty. “I had donated milk to pre-term twins whose mother had come all the way from Tirupati to deliver the babies. The satisfaction and joy of seeing the babies leave the hospital hale and hearty will keep me going for a long time to come.”
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