Breastfeeding a Baby with Allergies
Last week was World Breastfeeding Week, which really made me reflect on my own breastfeeding experiences and the advice I would have given myself then, and all new mums now, with hindsight. The week passed before I could gather my thoughts but I didn't want to let the opportunity to share pass by.
So this is a more personal blog than usual, about my breastfeeding journeys with my two sons. I really hope it resonates with you, whether you breastfed or not as I think a lot of the feelings and pressures I felt come hand in hand with motherhood in general.The more honest we are in talking openly about challenges like these, the more empowered other mums can be to make informed choices that are right for them and their baby.
I breastfed both our boys until they were around 16 months and while I'm so pleased I did, it certainly wasn't easy, especially as they both had food allergies.
As a first time mum at one point I cut out dairy, egg, wheat and several other foods from my diet in a desperate bid to work out what was causing our eldest's red raw eczema, six months of digestive issues and the fact he would wake up screaming five minutes after being laid down for a nap, or back down to sleep for the tenth time that night. We finally worked out it was dairy so I had to cut it out completely, which for me came at the cost of my physical health whilst obsessively trying to "fix" his gut and skin damage caused by the allergy affected my mental wellbeing.
When a baby has allergies, doctors recommend they're breastfed or given specialist formula until two, rather than moving onto cow's milk at a year, because non-dairy milk alternatives can't give them all the nutrients they need. So the sheer stubbornness that got me past those first few tricky months (tongue tie which wasn't picked up on) and my personal goal to nourish him until a year soon morphed into a huge sense of responsibility, which felt trapping - if I chose to stop breastfeeding, it could have a detrimental effect on his health. He wouldn't take a bottle well and most specialist formulas are an acquired taste and still contain dairy in some form so I was terrified of causing him pain by even trying it.
The one year finishing line I'd been working towards, which had started to seem in sight, was suddenly moved twice the distance and I didn't know if I had the stamina to make it that far.
The other thing about breastfeeding a baby with allergies is that suddenly your feeding choices are no longer your own private choices - they become everyone's knowledge and business. "So how come you can't eat dairy either?" and "Oh so you've decided to still continue not eating dairy?" (assuming that I'd stopped breastfeeding once teeth came through or when he reached his first birthday). With strangers it was easier just to tell them that I had the allergy myself.
I sat through countless dinners watching others tuck into morish dairy filled desserts. I'd eat something in the car before going into events when I suspected the host wouldn't have thought to cater for allergies, to save the awkwardness and stomach grumbles. I've never dieted other than this because I simply don't have the discipline. It was really hard, especially when monthly hormone swings came back and all I wanted was chocolate!
Although second time around I remembered the hurdles I'd faced, I still made the choice to breastfeed through allergies again. This time I felt in control. I identified posterior tongue tie myself and we caught it in time to get it sorted this time. I knew what the early allergy signs were so my instincts picked up on it at 2 weeks old, despite the vocalised disagreement of the community midwife which almost caused me to doubt myself. I knew the path to diagnosis, where the doctor's advised finish line would be for breastfeeding and that all I could do was my best. I felt more empowered because I knew what lay ahead and I was making a choice this time. I didn't have to do it but I wanted to.
With both boys I did the best I could for as long as I could with the support of some fantastic Facebook groups with mums also breastfeeding babies with allergies. I eventually trusted my instincts as a mum and went against doctor's advice (and the strict protocols and borderline shaming within those same Facebook groups which banned any talk of anything other than breastfeeding or specialist formula) and moved both boys to non-dairy milks with a balanced diet. My children, my choices.
I hope this helps raise awareness of how different each breastfeeding journey is, the additional ways a mum gives over her body to her child when allergies are involved and the difference that realistic expectations and informed decisions make to a breastfeeding journey.
So what I'd say to any new mum, and wish I could have said to the frantic first time mum me:
You're doing the best you can. You're exactly what your baby needs and therefore the choices you make are exactly what your baby needs. Your child, your choices. There are many ways to feed, many forms of nourishment, many ways to show love.
I'm 100% pro-breastfeeding and that's something I'm really passionate about but what's most important is doing what's right for you. I hope one of the things you've learned with current events over the past couple of months is that being pro one cause/option doesn't mean you're anti others. Breastfeeding is challenging and it's so crucial for women who choose to to have the support of others who believe passionately in its benefits, and I hope through my passion I can support women around me.
If you're breastfeeding, with or without allergies, or if you have a little one with eczema please know that my inbox is always open.
P.S. In case you were wondering, after three years dairy free, I'm thoroughly enjoying being able to eat ALL the chocolate again. I'm yet to have cheddar cheese again but I can't wait for that familiar tanginess on toast!