"My breastfeeding journey didn't start well. I couldn't imagine then that 10 years later I would tandem nursing! My eldest son Radimir was born 3 weeks early. I know now that he was just not ready to be born yet, but then I trusted hospital staff more than myself. He was born by ventouse. I will never forget the force that he was pulled out with. It was not a gentle birth by any description. Not surprisingly then he had trouble nursing. His head and whole body must've hurt so much, he didn't even cry, just grunted a lot. I just wanted to protect him from everyone and take him home. I know I would just go home if I knew then everything I know now. And I would just keep him on me and close to breast all the time. But under the vigilant eye of nurses at the hospital I had to feed him (or try to feed) only every two hours, and he was so weak, he would just attempt to suckle for a couple of minutes and then fall asleep. Having to feed a baby from your breast is such a new experience, so intimate and sacred, that all you need is to be alone with this new soul, get to feel and smell and know him. In the hospital it was so mechanical. Make sure he opens his mouth wide! Quickly slap him on the nipple! He falls asleep after just one minute? Wake him up with a wet paper tissue! Keep an eye on time! Make sure he's suckling for at least 10 minutes! It's just all too much for a new mum and the baby. After just a couple of tries I was told to express milk and give it to him by syringe. Blood sugar levels were measured every 4 hours. And I remember when I tried to nurse him by myself, the curtain that separated me from other beds in the room was sharply drawn and a grumpy nurse appeared and told me off for trying to feed him just before the blood test! Even for a new mother, I started to get fed up. They convinced me to give him a formula to get his blood sugars up to norm, and then we cautiously were discharged to a birthing centre closer to home for recovery. I was given extra formula bottles and a syringe to take with me.

At the birthing center the atmosphere was so different. The nurse got annoyed that I was given a formula and syringe and said that I don't need it. They just had much more faith in me and my precious egg-shaped head (from ventouse) baby. And nursing seemed easier without judging eyes peeping at you. After a couple of days rest there, we were  at home.

But he still did not feed well enough for the health visitor who made sure to visit us regularly. I remember so many tears shed over nursing. My breasts were sore, my bra was wet all the time. Every time I nursed my baby someone was watching - a health visitor or my mother-in-law. Was my nipple too big? His mouth too small? All this silly nonsense. I remember my sister telling me on the phone (she had her daughter just  2 months before me) that nobody watched or told her how long to feed for. You just do it often, whenever the baby is awake. He was so tense and small. I started researching what I could do. I found a cranial osteopath. I remember taking Rad to her, and how she held him so gently. It looked like just a few minutes cuddle to me. Then he fed for the first time calmly and relaxed. It took us a few weeks of sessions to remove the tension in his body. He started enjoying being on his back and smiled. He actually smiled and the osteopath first, which made me feel sad that it wasn't me. But I was and am so grateful to her for helping him relax and releasing all the tension that was in his small body after such a violent entry to this world.

Breastfeeding got so much easier and enjoyable. I loved how he had to hold my thumb and rub it while nursing. And how we could snuggle in bed and nurse while lying down. It was a bliss. At 6 months I went back to continue my PhD. My mum came over from Kazakhstan to look after him. I cycled home every two hours to nurse him. My mum was telling me how he was quiet, not unhappy, but quiet and smiled at her when she entertained him or gave him food. But as soon as I ran into the door all sweaty from cycling he would start giggling and nursing so hungrily, choking from his giggles. And then he'd fall asleep on the breast and eventually I would take him off gently and leave him to my mum again to go back to the lab. That was the hardest, leaving him sleeping, feeling like I was cheating on him. Even though it was only for two hours. He never had a special blanket or comforter. All he wanted whenever he felt unsure or fretful was "sisya" - “boob” in Russian.

I remember how when he was 2.5 years old I decided that it was time to stop. I can't understand myself now. Why did I decide? Why not he? I remember feeling very tired a lot and blaming it on breastfeeding. And also pressured by others telling me that he was old enough to stop. And I am still ashamed when I remember how in the night he would ask me for "sisya" in Russian (even though he already preferred speaking English the rest of time), and I was so determined and said no. He would sadly take my thumb and rub it until he fell asleep. I regret it so much now that it ended on a sad note.

When my daughter was born 4 years later I was determined not to listen to anyone. Her birth was not at home like I wanted as she was early too, but it was much gentler with no interventions, and I brought her out myself into my arms. The midwife saw how determined I was and stepped aside to let me do it myself. She even left us alone, my daughter still connected to placenta until we were ready to cut the cord. I couldn't get enough of my precious Levana, she looked perfect to me. And she nursed straight away so gently but surely. I was in disbelief when the nurse said to me that they would do some genetics tests for trisomy. I looked at Ollie and saw in his eyes that he saw something unusual in her. I just couldn't understand. I loved every cell of her, and her last two little toes fused were just adorable to me. I started to have first worries though when she started getting very sleepy, not just as sleepy as a new born baby, there was something else. I held her on my breast, skin to skin all the time. I kissed and kissed her. And remember thinking how strange her breath smelled a bit, not like baby milky sweet breath, but a bit sour... And then those blood sugar levels plummeted, and a sleepy doctor in the middle of the night told me that I was not feeding her enough or maybe my milk was not nutritious enough for her (What nonsense! And how rude!). So here we were again. Even worse. All of a sudden she's separated from me in an incubator,and I was directed to a sad room with breast pumps. And I pumped milk every 2 hours and tried to feed her, but she just got more and more lethargic. A gastric tube was fitted, blood tests ran for infection. I was supposed to syringe milk through the tube into her. It's not going in, she's pushing it out. I tried to tell the nurse that it didn’t feel right, but she's dismissive. We spent all day like that and then in the middle of the next night I had a panic and refused to pump any more milk into her. A nurse checked with a doctor and decided to show me that it's ok, by syringing some milk out of her to show that she didn’t have milk in her tummy and I needed to give her more. She syringed out one full 10 ml syringe, then another one, and a third one. Then she left to get more syringes. All of a sudden my tiny baby girl 2.2 kg had 12x10ml syringes lying next to her. 120ml of milk was sitting in her grape-sized tummy, stretching it and not going anywhere. Then it seemed that out of nowhere a surgeon appeared and ordered an urgent X-ray. I will never forget that scary X-ray photo, where we could see her tummy up to a point and then it was all black. He explained that 40% of babies with trisomy21 had duodenal atresia - obstruction of the stomach, and that if that was what she had (they can never be 100% sure) they could fix it surgically. I felt completely overwhelmed. I remember holding her in my arms trying hard not to feel like saying goodbye before her surgery. And Ollie and I sitting in the car while she was operated on and just crying with no restraint and hugging each other. We had no idea what was going to happen.

But she was strong. She got through. She was so quiet in that incubator, all in wires and probes. We got her out and took turns having her on our skin, lying under a UV lamp to help her with jaundice. And I pumped and pumped, and kept a log of all the milk I pumped for her. My breasts got so sore and then tough from all the mechanical pumping. The care for her was amazing and many nurses were sensitive and proactive in helping us connect and be together as much as possible. Even so, often it felt like  it would have been easier for the staff if I wasn’t there so much and wasn’t trying to do simple things myself. I had to race the nurse to change my daughter’s nappy and begged them to wait for me before changing her nappy in the middle of the night or doing any blood tests, so I could at least hold her hand to let her know I was there. Then there was a battle to convince the staff to let me try to breastfeed her. I sat by her incubator day and night, writing my thoughts and researching how to help her. I was determined to breastfeed. But trying to suck on a nipple while there's a tube in your mouth is not that easy. She tried and tried. Again I had watchful eyes to "see how I'm doing" and twice-daily weighings. I rebelled as I couldn't be away from her anymore and convinced them to take the feeding tube out if we ever were to breastfeed successfully. I also wanted her to be in the same room with me and just go home. But they wanted to see "established breastfeeding" before discharging us. A nurse suggested a nipple shield, and I am so grateful I tried it. It was just what Levana needed to help her stay on and get a better feed. After that I knew we had to be at home in order to relax and nurse. We won and after 4 weeks in the hospital, we finally were allowed to leave with a promise to come back for regular weighings. I remember being so grateful for just laying in my own bed with her. A lot of tears were shed every day over every feed. I would try to feed her without a shield first, then put a shield on, let her feed, then express the rest and give it to her through the bottle. By the time it's done, it was feed time again. That was my life day and night.But I was grateful that she was trying and we were at home. I prayed every feed for her to get the hang of it and promised to never stop breastfeeding until she was ready to give it up herself. Words of a nurse that breastfeeding with a shield long-term was going to dry up my milk supply hang heavily  over me. Then by chance I saw a friend of a friend while on a walk. And I nearly cried when she asked me about breastfeeding. She told me that she fed her baby for 9 months with a shield and then he got the hang of it! This was just what I needed to hear. After that I had no doubts that we'd succeed.

At 5.5 months for the first time she had her first full feed without a shield. She finally got the hang of how to coordinate suckling, breathing and swallowing. We were on a holiday in a beach hut. We were relaxed and rested and had nothing to worry about. Just sun, sand and sea.  I was over the moon! Until she got her first tooth through at 11 months.

Again she struggled to figure out how to breastfeed with this new little sharp peg in her mouth. I overreacted the first time she bit me. She got scared and refused to nurse. I thought that it was over and felt so sad. After two days of not feeding and refusing a bottle, in the middle of the night, when she woke up, I gently asked her to have another go and promised not to scream. My breasts were so rock hard with milk, so I was in pain anyway. She tried and couldn’t resist biting, but I had to let her figure it out. And she really tried for a couple of minutes and then she got it. We were back in the game! I knew then that we can get through anything, we just need time and patience.

She was still breastfeeding when I got pregnant again a year later. It was a fretful pregnancy, and I went through an emotional rollercoaster several times. My hormones were all over the place. Some days I felt almost a repulsion when she wanted to breastfeed, and other days it was the most natural and comforting thing. I knew I was going to continue nursing her if she decided to. On the day Zoryan was born she was poorly with a cold and all she wanted was to nurse. But every time I tried to nurse, I had a surge - he was on his way. So I had to take her off and she was very sad. Ollie cuddled her throughout the birth. I was grateful for being at home, but worried that she would be scared of my primeval voice while birthing. But she fell asleep which made me feel calmer, like she knew that it was all going to be ok. And the birth of Zoryan couldn't've been any calmer with reassuring mideives and the best friend by my side. As soon as he was born he took the breast - I was still in the pool and he was still connected to placenta. I remember thinking - this is how it is meant to be. I could have many more babies if I knew that it would be like this! And then Levana was awake and wanted to nurse. It felt so natural to nurse her after him.

For the first few days after Zoryan’s birth, Levana hardly ate anything - my milk was rich and she needed fluids to recover from cold. I was worried Zoryan would get her cold, but he didn’t. My body knew exactly what my babies needed and gave them the best nutrition to grow and be healthy. The first few weeks were so hard for her. Suddenly there was this little being that I paid attention to so much. Letting her nurse whenever she wanted was so reassuring for her, and after a difficult couple of weeks she became calmer and was a bit happier to share me with her brother. I love tandem nursing them. Levana’s stroking Zoryan’s head, and he’s touching her face. Even Rad, who is now 10 can feel the love and often comes and hugs me while I nurse them saying how he wishes he was small again too. My heart fills with overwhelming love for my precious children. Of course I feel tired and have to make sure I get enough vitamins and feed myself well. I became vegan shortly after Zoryan’s birth, and I have never felt healthier. I had no worries over feeding or milk supply this time. And it was so handy to have helpful Levana, whenever my breasts got engorged with milk - she was ready to help. Now, 18 months later, she sometimes watches me nursing Zoryan, and when I offer to nurse her as well, she says ‘No, it’s for Zoryan’, which is so sweet. She waits her turn and then whispers into my ear in Russian that she wants to nurse too. It is so sweet and considerate of her. And I am sure it is forming a lovely connection between her and Zoryan. I know they will nurse until they don’t need it anymore, and I am enjoying every moment of it. I know that it doesn’t last long in the big scheme of life and treasure this precious time."