In June 2016 my partner and i received the most devastating news. I was nearly 37 weeks pregnant and our first precious baby Reuben had died. Four days later, on Fathers Day, I gave birth to our perfect baby boy, who looked as if he had just slipped into a newborn slumber. I was petrified of seeing him, holding him, falling in love with him. I didn't know if my heart could take it.
During my pregnancy I had thought about breastfeeding, but I was of the opinion I would give it a go but if it wasn't for us I would bottle feed. Of course, this became irrelevant. I would never get the chance. What surprised me when I held Reuben for the first time, tears pouring from my eyes, is that my maternal instinct kicked in straight away. I felt such a rush of love. I was ecstatic that I was holding my boy, I was desperate to feed him, to nurture him. Emotions that I never expected. I knew he had died but I couldn't switch off the instinct to care for him. I held him to my chest, desperate for him to wake up and latch for the first time. For me to wake up and realise it was a nightmare and our lives hadn't fallen apart. His death was unexplained. The consultant said "it was one of those things". Words which still haunt me.
I guess this was the beginning of my breastfeeding journey. The beginning of a fascination and a love affair with something so natural but so magical. 5 months after losing Reuben I was pregnant again. Petrified, anxious, afraid. But absolutely determined not only to have a living, breathing, screaming baby but to breastfeed. This time would be different.
Like all journeys in life, there are bumps in the road. I was induced early due to my overwhelming anxiety and 4 days before Reuben's 1st birthday our second son, Thijs, arrived. All was well at first until he was struggling to oxygenate and was whisked off to the NICU. I was dazed, confused and overwhelmed.
Thijs spent a few hours in the NICU and was soon breathing independently and transferred to the Special Care Baby Unit. He slept a lot (He arrived very quickly) and was jaundiced. He was fed glucose via a tube but I had made it clear I wanted to breastfeed and was keen to get going. Due to his sleepiness latching on was near impossible. I was advised to pump to bring my milk in so sat day and night by his little cot with a hospital-grade pump attached to me. Slowly but surely I was pumping colostrum which he was fed first by tube and then by cup. I felt so proud of myself - even though the amounts I was producing were tiny I knew how beneficial it was for Thijs.
We were unable to go home until Thijs would feed. He lost 8% of his body weight and I began to feel the pressure. It was suggested I give him formula via a cup. I felt defeated. I thought my body wasn't working, I wasn't doing enough. So I looked for help. Apparently there was breastfeeding support available in the hospital but no-one could find any details. It turned out there was no support anymore. The staff did as much as they could, but understandably their focus was on the sick babies in their care. I felt so alone.
My ray of sunshine was a trainee nurse who was only 19. She was on placement and sat with me first showing me how to express by hand to give Thijs a taste and then encouraging him to latch. After many failed attempts, Thijs latched. I felt it. It felt different. I cried. This trainee nurse gave me so much encouragement. After noticing the pressure I was under to give him formula in order to get him home she whispered "if you want to breastfeed stick to your guns. You can do it."
I practiced feeding Thijs anytime he was awake. Luckily we had a room next to the unit so I could be with him at any time. I kept pumping. I kept feeding. His weight stabilised and I insisted we could go home - I knew we could succeed together. The consultant said he admired my drive to breastfeed and told me to keep going. Words which meant so much to an exhausted and overwhelmed mum.
It was a rocky couple of weeks at home, the health visitor came out often and as Thijs was slow to gain weight at first she insisted "I wasn't producing enough milk." I knew this was inaccurate. Thijs had wet nappies and was satisfied and alert. His jaundice levels were subsiding. He just needed time. She came out when Thijs was around 4 weeks old and before she had even weighed him she said again "you're not producing enough, you need to top him up". However, she weighed him and he had put on a pound in a week. I felt vindicated. I WAS enough. I COULD do it. There was nothing wrong with my supply. She didn't apologise, but she never questioned my supply again.
He has gone from strength to strength. Breastfeeding is so hard but oh my goodness so worth it. For the first 3 months he fed every hour. For the next 3 he didn't sleep at all during the night unless he was feeding. And now, at almost a year old he still loves the boob. We co-sleep (I wish I had done this from day one!), he naps on me during the day and feeds whenever he wants to. The bond between us is so special and I will continue to breastfeed for as long as he wants to. I'm proud of him and I'm proud of me.
If it hadn't have been for that young trainee nurse perhaps this story would have been different. Despite being told by every healthcare professional that breast is best, support for new mums to breastfeed is not always available. Support is vital to encourage mothers to continue and persevere. It gets easier but it takes hard work. It takes practice. It takes confidence. I knew we would get there but I was determined.
As the weeks have turned into months, breastfeeding has become second nature to both Thijs and I. If I could pass on any advice to new mums it would be trust your abilities, trust your body and trust your instincts. Don't give up on your worst day. It gets easier.
Reuben, thank you for making me a mother. I didn't get to feed and nurture you but you will always be my first born and my inspiration. Thijs, thank you for giving me the chance to be a mother again. I am so proud of you.