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Hi Nicola – just thought I’d send you this card Ciaran made me today. This is one of my proudest achievements .. today I’m breastfeeding my baby for 6 months.”

I received the above message by text last Friday. I think women can be at their most amazing when they have a baby and things don’t go to plan. Let me explain.

I met Mary and baby Molly in late November 2019 for a home visit. Molly was just 12 days old and her entry into the world hadn’t been easy. She was born by emergency caesarean section after an unsuccessful attempt to deliver by forceps. It was no surprise that Molly struggled to latch. After birth, Mary had a lot of pain. When she recalls the experience, she describes it as traumatic.

The booking email I received from Mary said, “I really want to breastfeed my baby.”

To say Mary was desperate is an understatement, I was the second IBCLC to do a home visit and her confidence in her ability to make this work was wearing thin. Understandably, Mary felt angry, sore, and hopeless. She felt that this was the last chance before calling it a day.

When I first met her, Mary was curled into a little ball on the couch with her baby.  She was holding onto her baby and, it seemed, her dream of breastfeeding for dear life.

I’m not going to lie; I was worried about her. I worried that she would find it too much to get breastfeeding established and, paradoxically, that she would never get over the loss if she stopped breastfeeding.

Baby Molly was almost completely formula fed by bottle when we met. She cried when Mary tried to latch her to her breast. Mary’s breastmilk supply wasn’t increasing either.

We made a plan that day. We agreed that we would take a fluid approach, with regular contact to see how everything was progressing and make changes as needed. What Mary needed right then was to do what she could. She didn’t need any more overwhelm, so we agreed that she’d ‘just keep swimming’, keep the milk flowing, do what she could.  

At the time that I met Mary and Molly, myself, Caoimhe and MeabhAnne were about to launch our Purple Hearts Breastfeeding Support Group. I wondered if it was too soon to introduce Mary to this peer support group but, having voiced my concerns with the other facilitators, decided to let her choose for herself. I told her about the group and asked if she’d like to come to the first meeting.  She jumped at the chance to be with other women in a supportive safe environment led by IBCLCs.

Mary recently told me “I remember the night before the first Purple Hearts meeting thinking to myself, that out there tonight in Dublin, is eight other women going through the same struggles as me, and that brought me comfort knowing I wasn’t alone.”

Two days later, Mary’s partner drove her to the meeting and waited outside. Our first Purple Hearts meeting was very emotional. It was full of genuine support and if I could have bottled the feeling in the room I would have. The other mothers who attended were further along in their breastfeeding journey and, oh my gosh, how they minded Mary as the newest mother there. It was a beautiful experience. They encouraged her to do what she could and acknowledged they all had been at that very vulnerable stage.  

Mary was still doubting whether herself and Molly could master breastfeeding. During the meeting, she expressed her doubts and how painful she found breastfeeding. Needless to say, I was delighted when, the next day she texted me with an update on feeding and said “ So glad you invited me to the group xxx”.  

I didn’t realise it then, but this was the start of an improvement for Mary and Molly. I went back to see them both very early in the New Year and what a change I saw. Mary’s confidence had grown so much. She was directly feeding Molly with a nipple shield. She had also gotten to the point where she was pumping and giving formula when she didn’t have enough expressed milk. Mary was back to her old self. The change wasn’t only in Mary though, Molly was a smiley, happy, thriving little girl.

Given the success so far, Mary needed to reduce the work she was doing, and we decided to see if supplementing Molly at the breast would help. However, this wasn’t successful. After discussing the options, Mary decided to cut back on pumping to focus more on breastfeeding. She would then give whatever extra was needed via paced bottle feeding.

We also tried to encourage Molly to latch without the nipple shield, but she wasn’t having any of it.

Throughout January, Mary battled through sore nipples, mastitis and nipple thrush, all the while working on increasing milk supply.

Throughout her journey breastfeeding Molly, Mary has received support and knowledge from the other Purple Heart mothers. She found the group so vital to her success that she has now become an administrator for our mothers’ only WhatsApp group.

Molly is now 6 months old and Mary is breastfeeding with a nipple shield complemented with one bottle of formula at night. I am so proud of her and Molly and all they have achieved.

Mary was awarded her Purple Heart Pin at the 2nd group meeting in January. This is a recognition of bravery in the field of breastfeeding her daughter. However, all of us in the Purple Heart Breastfeeding Support Group know that the ultimate prize is the gift of breastfeeding her baby and all the wonderful things that come with it.

If you would like to find out more about the Purple Hearts Breastfeeding Support Group, please contact me for more details.