Four years ago, my breastfeeding journey began. My first born. My first true love. I was, “just going to breastfeed him”, as I told the midwife. I didn’t realise anything could go wrong, let alone how many issues women face with breastfeeding even before they start.

I was lucky. Not only was I lucky, I had determination and strength, and access (eventually) to the support I needed. And stubbornness, probably, to keep going, despite all the hurdles we continued to face. Every drop counts.

At just under four weeks old, Leo was classified as “Failure to Thrive” (I loathe and detest this phrase. If anyone uses this phrase to describe your child with regard to weight, they are not up to date with the latest NICE Guidelines on Faltering Growth). I was told this by a paediatrician who thought my milk wasn’t good enough, it didn’t have enough calories, because I don’t drink cow’s milk (this myth prevails, it’s absolute nonsense, but I still hear other mothers being given this information as if it is evidence based. It is not.)

The crying seemed relentless. Crying as my toes curled with pain. Crying because my son fed round the clock but failed to gain weight. Crying as I held my tiny, frail baby, not understanding why my body was failing him. I was still bleeding and in pain. My breasts ached. My skin was dry. I felt like my whole body was crying.

I’m not even sure now exactly what the issue was, looking back I can see that his latch was not deep enough to stimulate the milk flow adequately, and as the days went on he became more and more tired, which in turn affected milk transfer.

Leo’s overall health and brain development were perfectly fine, but he did not gain weight at all in four weeks. He lost significant weight and we were told by the paediatrician if we did not give my son formula, it would affect his neurological development. We asked the paediatrician about human donor milk. We were told it was not an option. Leo’s Dad asked all the questions he could think of, what other options did we have. “This is the last resort. Now. No other option. The consultant says you need formula. Now.” We were given a feeding schedule and sent on our way.

We bought formula on the way home from the hospital, and I cried all the way. I cried all the time we stood in Asda looking at the tins of formula under fluorescent lighting trying to compare the labels and not having a single clue whether any was ‘better’ or not. I cried as we fed him his first bottle. I cried as he threw it all up, most of it through his nose, because I didn’t know anything about bottles or paced feeding and gave him milk from a too fast flowing age 3 month+ teat.

Leo regained his birth weight after just a few days of formula feeding. In that time, I did not realise my milk supply would dip further due to the lack of demand. We were now in a top up trap. I cried because I wanted to breastfeed and he wasn’t feeding much from me. I cried because I felt like I was losing him. We were then discharged from midwifery care and I lost support from midwives and the infant feeding team. After four weeks of constant visitors, bringing their scales and charts, postnatal depression hit me like a tonne of bricks. I did not want to engage with anyone.

My relationships suffered. My health suffered. I didn’t know what to do. I just knew I wanted to continue to breastfeed. More crying. I was isolated and afraid. I was spiralling deeper into depression and felt that it was all my own fault.

I came online in the middle of the nights, and turned to groups like UKBAPS and BFYM, asking through stifled tears and panic, for help. I sought out local breastfeeding support groups, and I finally found what I needed. These women, from all walks of life, poured their energy, love, and collective knowledge into assisting us with continuing to breastfeed.

Then came the pumping. I had to express round the clock. Every 2 hours. Even if Leo was asleep. The relentless whirring and whistling of the motor. The useless supplements. More crying, over spilled milk.
We found a temporary breastmilk donor, Michelle, who I am forever indebted to for her kindness and selflessness in helping us to continue and supporting me through a very dark time.

I saw the wonderful Cath, one early Tuesday morning at her group. She stayed late to talk to me after she’d seen a long list of others. She corrected our latch, and was the one to dispel the myths the paediatrician had told us, encouraging me to trust my body and my baby. She was so kind and gentle and made no judgement against me and how we had ended up where we were.

During this time, I suffered the breakdown of my relationship with Leo’s father, which looking back now was absolutely the right thing, but at the time was soul destroying. I returned home to my family, where my mum wrapped me in a blanket and fed me for three months, helping me round the clock to nurse my baby and keep us both safe and well.

We eventually obtained and began to use a Supplemental Nursing System to deliver expressed milk to Leo via the breast to help stimulate further breastmilk supply. I cried any time I woke up in a pool of milk because it was a waste. Every drop counts.

I communicated with Suzanne via email, who encouraged and supported me with using the SNS and reducing formula top ups over time. It took time, energy, tears, stress, love, and a lot of patience to overcome and build my supply to the point where top ups could be eradicated. Suzanne was realistic. “He may always need some level of supplementation” but she encouraged me to continue because, as I know now more than ever, Every Drop Counts.

I made friends online with other breastfeeding mums, who I still talk to almost daily, who understood my feelings and could guide me and encourage me through what was normal. I struggled endlessly with nursing aversion, where feeding Leo made my skin crawl and I’d cry because I felt like I was failing again.

Then finally, somewhere between seven and eight months, we gave up the last of the formula. I look back and still feel regret that I could not have exclusively breastfed my son and have him thrive solely from breastmilk. I mourn that loss very deeply. But I try not to dwell too much on the loss and focus more on what we have gained in this time. Every drop counts.

As you all probably know, Leo and I continued to breastfeed until he was over three years old! I’m still completely in awe of him and how far we managed to come, despite everything. I have endless love and gratitude for the women who came forward in those long dark nights of my soul to bring me the light, to educate and empower me.

As hard as it is to re-live this journey – there is so much trauma and pain in my memory – the physical pain, the hallucinations, the intrusive thoughts, the panic, the detachment, the fear, the guilt, the sadness, the grief – I am reminded every day of the progress we’ve made. I see how wonderful my son is and how healthy and happy he is and feel unbelievably grateful that I am still here to help him grow.

There were times when I felt I would not survive the stress. There were days when I thought he’d be better off without me. Through it all, we fed. He held me with his little arms and locked his eyes with me when feeding and as we settled into our oxytocin baths, I knew he needed me, because I needed him.

In the last four years I’ve used that pain to fuel my passion. I qualified as a breastfeeding peer supporter in early 2017 thanks to some excellent training from Louise and Alex. I opened WCBFFs the same year with the help of some of the most wonderful women I have ever known. I began my IBCLC studies in 2018. I was able to start working for Families and Babies in 2018. I hope to take my IBCLC exam in October 2020.

I’ve had the privilege of supporting 1000s of women, both friends and strangers, online and in person, and many of them have gone on to train and support others. Peer support has this wonderful ripple effect, I feel. When you understand its value, you want to share that with others. Women supporting women is wonderful to behold. I am eternally grateful for the sisterhood of motherhood.

Being a mum is raw. It’s messy and the emotions are complex. The guilt is strong. The fear is intense. The love is so powerful and all consuming – know I would lay down and die to protect my child. I love him more than I even know how to describe. I’m in awe of the special person he is.

And I cannot thank him enough for loving his milkies. Every drop counts.

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