Guest Blog: Our Breastfeeding Journey – Susie & Theo – Breastfeeding through illness

My son Theo and I were lucky enough to have a smooth breastfeeding journey. He fed really well from the beginning and other than a few days of engorgement and a rather over active let down, we didn’t have any physical issues. I’d attended Sian’s breastfeeding café while still pregnant and have been to most of them since, and the knowledge and confidence that gave me definitely helped, knowing both Sian, and the peer support, was there to help with any little problems or questions that arose.

He was (and still is!) a very demanding baby, and fed very frequently from the start, and up to 8 months, even though he was loving the start of weaning, he was still feeding most hours through the day (and often the night too – zzzzz). He occasionally took a bottle of expressed milk, but not reliably, and whilst part of me loved breastfeeding, another part of me felt it tied me down to him so much that I never had a break.

When Theo was about 7.5 months old, I started feeling quite poorly. This coincided with Theo’s already bad sleep getting even worse (up at least every hour). At first I thought I was just run down due to tiredness, but it got gradually worse, to the point where I needed my Mum or husband here all the time to help with Theo because I couldn’t lift him. Eventually we went to A and E where I was diagnosed with an abscess on my appendix (a complication of appendicitis which basically meant I had a big ball of infection in my appendix that my body was fighting off) and I was admitted to hospital for what would eventually be 9 days.

I was so poorly there was no way Theo could stay in hospital with me, and so I had to send him home with my husband and Mum. I felt so much Mum guilt over how he’d cope and they’d cope, knowing how often he fed and how much he relied on feeding to sleep. Luckily, he took a bottle of expressed milk from the freezer – I’m sure he somehow knew that I wasn’t there so boob wasn’t an option! He did then sleep, albeit with my Mum and husband spending a lot of time bouncing him and taking him for walks in the pram in the middle of the night!

As soon as Theo was brought in the following day, he latched straight back on, and at that point I was determined to continue feeding him if I possibly could. It provided so much comfort for us both at a miserable time, and was one of the few things I could comfortably and safely do with him, since I was in such pain, and he’s such a non-stop bundle of energy! Theo really didn’t understand why I couldn’t play with him as usual and unless he was latched on, mostly cried so much when he saw me that he had to be taken out. This was heartbreaking for me, and I’m so thankful breastfeeding allowed us to have that closeness when we were forced to have so much time apart.

I told every doctor, nurse and HCA who I had anything to do with that I was breastfeeding before I was given any new medication or treatment and asked them to check it was breastfeeding friendly. Thanks to some very supportive doctors (including several male doctors who really surprised me with how understanding they were) and a bit of luck, this wasn’t a problem at all. I did have an MRI scan, where they wanted to inject a dye that would have meant no breastfeeding for 24 hours, but after I cried at the lovely HCA, they managed to do the scan without the dye.

The ward I was on were wonderful. They put me in a side room and allowed Theo to visit at any time of day, waited to give me medication until I was done feeding, organised for me to borrow a electric pump from the maternity ward and put my milk in the fridge until my husband/Mum collected it.

Due to the level of infection my body was fighting, my supply was lower than usual (which I think is why Theo’s sleep had been so bad just before I was admitted). Even with pumping as frequently as realistic (I tried to do it every 3 hours as Sian had recommended, but the medication I was on was so strong that it made me basically pass out and a lot of the time I was in too much pain to pump properly), I wasn’t able to produce enough milk for Theo and so he had formula for the first time in his life. He also massively increased his intake of solids while I was in hospital. I had thought I’d feel guilty for giving him formula, but I didn’t at all – knowing he was fed and that I was still able to breastfeed despite everything was the most important thing.

Theo dealt far better with the changes than I thought he would. His sleep was no worse than usual and he was his usual crazy self. It made Theo’s bond with my husband and Mum so much stronger and he was very popular with the rest of the ward, both patients and staff, including one group of elderly ladies we nicknamed the ‘Theo fan club’!

After I came out of hospital, Theo spent so much time latched on – it was like having a newborn again. I think it was a combination of wanting the cuddles and comfort now he had his Mummy back and upping my supply. For about a fortnight, he had one bottle of formula before bed, but then we gradually phased that out. There was one memorable moment on one of the first days it was just the two of us again, when he spent about an hour feeding then turning to me and giggling. It was his way of showing me that he was happy things were back to normal, and all the negative feelings I’d ever had about breastfeeding disappeared in that moment. It is hard, but it creates such a magical bond.

Although it was a miserable experience, it made me realise that both he and I will be OK if I leave him and means that my husband can now put him to bed so I can go out in the evening occasionally. I was having counselling for post-natal depression before I went into hospital, but I’m so much happier now I know I can take time for me when I need it. It shouldn’t take such a rubbish thing to cause this. I’d advise any breastfeeding mother who is feeling trapped to trust that baby will be OK with another caregiver and take a break. They’ll work out a way to cope and your mental health matters too.

I feel so grateful to the support I had at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital to allow our breastfeeding journey to continue. Two months later, we’re still going strong, and there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight any time soon.