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Professional doula Samantha, 50, is mum to Elliott, 13, Cara, 11, and Trystan, eight, as well as her adult son. She is married to Ed, 56, who’s self-employed, and the family live in the Welsh town of Caerphilly. Here, she shares her experience of breastfeeding not only her own babies but other women’s, too…

I never set out to become any kind of breastfeeding advocate and certainly not a wet nurse. In fact, when I had my first son, now 26, from a previous relationship, I only fed him for six weeks before I had to go back to part-time accounting. There was nowhere near as much support or information about breastfeeding and parenting online as there is today.

When I got married to Ed in 2008, I knew that I wanted to parent differently. I adored breastfeeding our eldest child Elliott and all the happy oxytocin hormones that came with it. It was so much easier than faffing around sterilising and preparing bottles.

When Elliott was about 18 months old, I briefly tried to wean him off the boob but he kept clawing at me and fussing. It was clearly making him unhappy, so I just carried on. He hated touching fabric when he was feeding – we later discovered he has autism – so I couldn’t discreetly use a nursing bra, I had to get the whole boob out every time.

But I quickly overcame my shyness and ignored people frowning or telling me I should “go to the toilet” to feed. Breasts have been so sexualised in the UK, when they are just mammary glands and made for feeding.

When our daughter Cara came along, I fed her and Elliott in tandem. Then, when Trystan arrived, I fed all three for a while. The body is amazing and each breast adapts to the needs of the child, so once the very early days are over your breast will produce milk perfectly adapted to each child feeding from it.

Even more amazing is that if one child has a bug, or you do, your milk produces protective antibodies. I allowed each child to nurse for as long as they wanted. This used to be called “extended breastfeeding” but I prefer the phrase “natural term weaning”.

Elliott and Cara continued feeding until they were around five-and-a-half. From around two years, they stopped doing it in public – it was as though they sensed that they “shouldn’t”.

While not nutritionally important, breastfeeding still offered both children sustenance, comfort and security when they wanted it. Trystan carried on feeding until he was six-and-a-half.

During those years, I just ate my normal diet – including lots of cake and chocolate! The idea you need to restrict your diet is partly responsible for putting people off. You don’t. I didn’t have much alcohol – but looking after three youngsters doesn’t leave much time for drinking! However, I did still enjoy a glass of wine and a G&T.

I never actively decided to be a wet nurse – the name given to those who feed other women’s babies. It just happened after I helped a friend who was in hospital. Her older baby was not allowed to stay on the ward with her and had never used a bottle. She phoned me desperate for someone to have him.

I said, “Of course, but how am I going to feed him?” She replied, “I was kind of hoping that you’d feed him.” So that’s what I did.

Then I breastfed again when another friend asked me to babysit, because she knew I’d feed the baby. It’s easier because a lot of breastfed babies aren’t used to bottles.

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Another time, I responded to a new mum looking for donor breast milk online. She was in hospital after an operation and couldn’t feed or pump milk for her twins, who were throwing up formula and starving. I said, “I haven’t got a pump but I’ve got boobs so, if you’re that desperate, I’ll feed your babies.” We’re now close friends and I am her doula.

My own children didn’t mind “sharing” me. I explained, “These are your booby brothers and sisters,” and they liked that. I’ve since lost count of the number of times I’ve fed other babies now. I never advertised, women just heard of me and came to me for help. I never charged them either, I just saw it as mother-to-mother support. I felt completely honoured to be asked to help out.

None of the mums felt jealous that I was providing for their child. They were asking for help and I simply gave it.

Everyone in the breastfeeding community is very positive about my choices. Outside of it, however, there can be disapproval. Some cried, “But you could have AIDS!” Yet most breastfeeding women and people have just been through the NHS screening programme themselves and they’re hardly out there having orgies and contracting diseases. If you’re asking somebody to feed your baby, there has to be trust.

There is a lot more milk sharing going on than you’d think. There are the NHS milk banks of course – often for premature babies, where there are stringent standards and rules – but there are many unofficial groups out there, too. People don’t always talk about it because they fear judgement.

Folk are strange about breastfeeding in the UK and are often judgemental about mums who wish to carry on. I’ve been told, “You’re being selfish, it’s just for your own pleasure” and “It’s abuse – there are child protection issues.” Someone online even told me I deserved to be hung for my actions!

Ed was always completely supportive and protective of me, and I never let the criticism bother me. You have to be firm in your beliefs if you decide to parent in a non-conventional way and I run my own child-led parenting group supporting others in their choices. We also co-slept with our children, meaning they shared our bed and still do sometimes, though the older ones might not thank me for saying that! They each have their own bedrooms too, of course, but at the time, it made it very easy to carry on feeding.

We started out with a double bed and cot, then it grew to being a double, single and cot mattress on the floor, and finally we cracked and had a bespoke 8ft by 7ft 3in bed for all the family built. With all the customised bedding and mattress, it cost about £3,500 but has been worth every penny. They are such happy, secure children who are all very close. They are also exceptionally healthy.

Of course, it changes your sex life a little. On a Sunday morning we park the children downstairs with the Xbox and telly and go back to bed alone. We also make sure we get away for a weekend at least twice a year, when my amazing mum babysits. It’s important to still have time as a couple.

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Admittedly, throughout the years I was nursing, my boobs were “off limits” to Ed. Not because either of us thought it was wrong, I was simply “over” being touched there. They are bigger than they used to be – but I thought they were too small before. In my opinion, they’re the perfect breasts for me – and Ed agrees! He’s happy to be guided by me – sometimes they’re open for access and other times they aren’t. It’s hormonal, isn’t it?

The UK has one of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world, which is such a shame. I don’t believe anyone should feel pressured into it if they don’t want to, all I can say is that it’s one of the very best things I’ve ever done and I know my own children and all my “booby babies” have benefitted.

To find out more about Samantha’s work, visit her website caerphillydoula.co.uk or find her on Instagram and Facebook as Samantha Gadsden Doula. There is also a Facebook group called WABA World Breastfeeding Week

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