As any nursing mother knows, breastfeeding is not easy, especially in the beginning. It requires practice, commitment, support and a whole lot of patience.
Julita “Lita” Nery has seen it all, having attended to Manila’s breastfeeding mothers for over 30 years now—from moms trying to increase production, to those suffering from clogged ducts.
Women always want to give their child the best start in life, but find themselves in need of help. And this is where Lita comes in with her lactation massage.
Lactation massage, as defined by Cardinal Santos Medical Center’s newsletter, The Mitre, “is a technique of applying smooth and gentle pressure to specific contact points on the breast to stimulate glands to have continuous flow of milk and to prevent clogging of milk ducts.”
“My lactation massage is a combination of science and tradition,” says Lita. “I apply the science of accupressure. At the same time, I use the traditional method of massage with everything I’ve learned from years of experience,” she explains.
Meeting Lita is more than just about getting a massage, though. It’s about having someone turn those breastfeeding instructions into reality. It is about getting advice from someone who will literally be hands-on and say what is best for you.
Back in the early ’80s, Lita herself was a young mother struggling to nurse her baby. Unfortunately she was given no support, and eventually gave up breastfeeding her firstborn.
Working as a community organizer, Lita was always active in women’s issues. One day, nongovernment organization Bunso (Balikatan at Ugnayan Naglalayong Sumagip ng Sanggol), with Unicef and the Department of Health, conducted a seminar on breastfeeding in her community.
Popularity of formula
The more she learned about the benefits of breastfeeding, the more determined she became to spread its value and help women. “That was the height of the popularity of formula!” she says in Filipino. “We used to enter supermarkets to give out flyers on breastfeeding to mothers.”
Soon Bunso took notice of Lita’s enthusiasm and natural skills in interacting with women. They sent her, with a doctor, to Australia in 1988 for a month-long exposure trip, visiting hospitals and clinics and attending an international conference on breastfeeding and lactation management.
Lita became a breastfeeding trainer and assistant head of lactation centers at the Philippine Children’s Medical Center, East Avenue, and Sangan Daan Periculturist Hospital, as well as lactation satellite offices.
However, she began to feel that counseling wasn’t enough. She decided to get professional training in basic and advanced massage; with a license she proceeded to incorporate the science of lactation she had learned over the years into her massages.
This was in 1994. Back then, though her services were unheard of, Lita knew from experience how the right touch could help a mother produce more milk.
Despite the uncertainty of her chosen field, she persevered and, to her surprise, “nag-boom! It was the doctors and my initial patients who referred me to others. I would get calls from people I didn’t know.”
Though she is often needed out of necessity, Lita knows how awkward it is to have such a private part as the breast to be massaged, especially in Filipino culture. This is why she begins her massages by chatting with her patient first, massaging her back and arms, until the mother feels comfortable.
Lita is always amused at the husbands, who usually do not know what to do when their wives start crying in pain. She encourages them to stay so that they would know how to assist their wives in the future.
As word spread, Lita’s work took her to Batangas, Zambales, Pampanga, Davao and Cebu. Eventually she decided to focus solely on lactation massages and positioning.
The difficulty of her job does not faze her since it’s an advocacy: “I have lasted this long because it is about breastfeeding. I don’t want any other mom to go through what I went through.”
Being the only one in this field means demand is great and so is the income. But for Lita, it is never about the money: “My concern is always to help.”
Every case is different
Lita says she used to have three jobs, but is now focused on lactation massage. Still she was able to send her four children to college. Life has a way of compensating for one’s needs.
These days she’s invited to other countries, such as Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, to give training seminars on lactation massage and management in hospitals.
She has trained many, but is quick to remind them it is never easy or simple. Every case is different. Unlike with a regular body massage, they are dealing with breasts and their many connected accupressure points. “You might cause more harm than help. You have to practice and know what you’re doing, and not just want to earn,” says Lita.
A number of people have begun to offer the same services, but Lita is shocked at how much they charge. “They have different priorities. This is not about money because it is no joke to guide a mother. That is why it is so important to attend seminars because you have to be able to help a mom physically, emotionally and psychologically. I go as a partner, and because I want to help teach a mom techniques, positioning, as well as counsel and give moral support.”
Lita laments the judgmental tone many “advocates” take nowadays. “Nobody has the right to judge or blame a mother who doesn’t know anything,” she points out, adding that it’s important to share knowledge and support so that a mother is assured that though breastfeeding is difficult, she is not alone.
“You should respect the mother, what she is experiencing, that is why she went to you,” says Lita.
In the last few decades, Lita has seen changes in breastfeeding attitudes in the Philippines. If she used to knock on doors of hospitals to spread the word, now hospitals and various centers approach her to conduct seminars.
She fervently believes in the importance of immediate postpartum lactation massage as a way of stimulating the breasts for the smooth flow of milk.
The timing is also important; this is when mothers are most vulnerable to the feeling that they are not producing any milk and can easily be discouraged.
Being there to massage new mothers and reassure them that they have milk is vital to building their confidence.
Lita is unconvinced of the increasing popularity of the breast pump. Nowadays, many of her calls are for clogged ducts and pre-mastitis, which she feels is due to the overuse of breast pumps.
She worries about the increasing dependence of mothers on pumps, and shares stories of mothers who think they have no milk simply because they can’t see any being pumped out.
She is quick to remind them that the stimulation of a pump is different from that of a baby. In the first few weeks, she would prefer that mothers learn how to hand-express their milk. It need not be painful, and it is also far more natural and less traumatizing for the breast.
When we comment on how many children she has also helped, Lita says: “It makes me happy! I realize I have so many ‘grandchildren’ when I see them!”
And with that, she’s off once again. She’s needed in yet another hospital, where a mother has just delivered a baby.
You can reach Lita Nery through tel. 0918-5557565; or visit facebook.com/LitaNery.