By JoBeth Williams (BMSG Staff)
At our Annual General Meeting earlier this year, we were delighted when an unexpected attendee showed up – Mrs Anna Chin, who had served as Interim President of the then Singapore Breastfeeding Mothers’ Group (SBMG) back in the late 70’s. Petite and soft-spoken, Anna is nonetheless passionate when she speaks about the trials and tribulations of being a breastfeeding mother four decades ago.
“New mothers suffered so much anguish and pain even though they looked forward to breastfeeding and motherhood,” she muses, recalling how in the 70’s, milk companies aggressively marketed their wares to them. Not only was formula promoted heavily in maternity wards, but the government was also pushing for new mothers to return quickly to the workforce. Breastfeeding, obviously, was not seen to be compatible with a young nation’s fervour for progress. Infant formula was hailed as a wonder solution to this problem – a milk that supposedly contained all the nutrients a baby could possibly need, without the inconvenience and difficulty of breastfeeding. Formula samples were readily handed out to new mothers, compounding their free fall into low supply and leading to early weaning. “They looked forward to breastfeeding and motherhood, but there was a lack of knowledge at that time,” Anna adds. It was a prevailing belief then that Asian women, who have smaller breasts than their Western counterparts, would never make enough milk to sustain a baby. There was almost nothing going for it. Breastfeeding never stood a chance.
Anna felt this most keenly and most regrettably when she ran into difficulties after the birth of her first son. Hospitalised for a week due to her Caesarean section, she could only watch helplessly as the nurses insisted on caring for her baby for her, feeding him formula and ignoring her request to breastfeed. Without her baby to suckle, her breasts grew more and more engorged; it was so severe and she was in so much agony that in a moment of excruciating pain, she wished for death. Her mother-in-law was also unsupportive and told her in no uncertain terms to give up her ideas of breastfeeding. Disheartened, Anna stopped nursing her firstborn after only one and a half months.
When she fell pregnant again, she felt a renewed sense of optimism. This time, she thought, she would be prepared. She found the SBMG and attended their mothers’ meetings, where she saw for herself how natural, happy and easy breastfeeding was, and was utterly convinced that this was her path forward. “Good role models are important,” Anna says decisively. She points to the Australian model, impressed by the way mothers are welcomed to schools to share about breastfeeding with the students. “Breastfeeding must be taught to all school kids! It should be included in the domestic science curriculum so the children will become responsible parents later.” She adds with some sadness that many of her contemporaries dissuaded their own daughters from breastfeeding, showing just how damaging a lack of role models can be.
Anna, however, had surrounded herself with positive role models during her second pregnancy. That birth, another C-section, landed her in hospital for an extended stay again, but this time she refused to give in. Although her baby had a marked preference for the bottle he had been given in the nursery, Anna persisted. At home, she put the bottles away and painstakingly expressed milk after every feed to get her supply up and running. It was a great personal triumph when her baby finally became what Anna laughingly calls a “happy sucker”. She ended up nursing him until he was three years old.
Having been so thoroughly supported and aided by the expatriates who ran SBMG, Anna felt that it was vital that they reach out to more local mothers. When the group was searching for a new President, Anna stepped up to take on the interim role until someone could be found. She fondly recalls the good work they did and the exhaustive efforts of the SBMG volunteers. “We went to hospitals, met medical students and attended mothers’ groups,” she says. “We visited new mothers in hospital, making home visitations on request. We encouraged mothers to borrow books from our library so they could learn more about breastfeeding.” The group even helped to coordinate a milk bank at the Singapore General Hospital (SGH), collecting breast milk to distribute to babies allergic to cow’s milk protein. Their dedication led to them making home deliveries to ensure the precious milk reached their intended recipients in time.
Although Anna did not always know what the individual outcomes were, helping so many women feed their babies was a reward in itself. She helped to operate the SBMG hotline, doling out mother-to-mother advice and support. She remembers receiving a call one night from a mother who was desperate to latch her baby. He had been refusing the breast and she was at her wits’ end. After speaking at length to the mother, Anna heard nothing further from her and thought no more about that particular case. Yet about a year later, she received a surprise in the mail – a thank-you card from the mother for helping her with her breastfeeding issues. Most encouraging of all, the baby was still latching at 1 year old. “It was so good to know she succeeded,” Anna smiles.
More than 40 years after Anna’s breastfeeding journey started, the Breastfeeding Mothers’ Support Group is still going strong. Many of the programmes the pioneer generation began have been developed and pushed further. We have several communication channels set up to reach new mothers; we run workshops and mothers’ meetings and do our best to populate the country with the positive role models that Anna feels are so vital to breastfeeding advocacy. Things are somewhat easier for new mothers nowadays, Anna notes, with longer maternity leave, more helplines, and better access to information. Yet, she insists that she is glad she went through the school of hard knocks.
“I learned so much,” she says, “and it gave me great pleasure to impart what I have learned to other mothers.” She considers what parting advice might be best for our members, and with an impish smile she tells us to remember this: “the only difference between big and small bosoms is fat, and not less milk ducts.”