Jumping in at the deep end is what becoming a mum is all about - and Leah McFall has jumped in feet first. The Belfast singer and former star of The Voice welcomed her baby boy Judah to the world back in December, and almost five months later she's still laughing from the shock of it all.
"It's been mad," says Leah. "We're still totally in the thick of it and I'm currently about to burn every sleeping book I've ever seen. They don't work.
"But I think he's just a busy character. He has things to do. He looks at me like, 'Mum, I want to sleep, I really do, but there's far too much going on.'" And to add to the mayhem that comes with parenthood, of course, has been the coronavirus crisis, which means the usual mums and tots activities Leah and baby Judah had just started to dabble in, won't be back on the cards any time soon.
"To be honest I'd been out and about for a good couple of months already when it all started to go a bit crazy," says Leah. "We had the family support right at the start, and I even got to make some really lovely mummy friends who have been amazing.
"I don't know how I'd have got through those first days and weeks without all that, because it really is tough."
Like so many new parents, Leah, along with husband Nathan Catterson felt nervous as her due date approached before Christmas.
"You hear so many horror stories before you give birth," she recalls. "It's like everyone in the street wants to tell you the horrifying things that happened to them, and of course you're terrified. It's like, do I want to know all this, he has to get out of here somehow!
"But really most women are so encouraging of other women. I'd have people in the street saying to me, you'll be the best wee mum, and it's lovely to have that, even from strangers. I think everyone knows how nervous new mums are going to be."
In the end though, Leah, who was mentored by Will.i.am during her 2013 stint on the BBC talent show, had a difficult experience herself, after going two weeks overdue.
"I thought he was going to celebrate his 18th birthday in there," she says. "It was mad. Everyone was telling me not to obsess over the due date because first babies tend to run late, but I was honestly like the most pregnant person ever. "I was the largest lady. People were saying to me, 'Your baby will be the perfect size for your body' - but that was not the case for me!
"Before he was born I was massive. My husband was tying my shoe laces for me for two months, and if I needed to sleep on my other side at night I'd wake Nathan up to help roll me over. I was immense, even though I'm only 5ft 2ins.
"The baby was really long. In the end, I was so overdue they induced me. Then I had a two-day labour and finally I got a C-section. I had it all. But I don't want to scare people because it was fine, really." And when she got baby Judah home, Leah, who grew up in Newtownabbey, says the gravity of the monumental change in her life didn't take long to hit.
"I don't think anyone can prepare you for that," says the 30-year-old. "You're just hit with the fact this precious wee life is here and you want to make sure everything's alright.
"We slept with the light on for the first two weeks and every little move he made we were jumping up thinking, 'Is he alright?'
"Right now he's lying on his tummy staring up at me, and he's so cute, but the first few weeks were terrifying." Adding to the pressure, recalls Leah, was a struggle with breastfeeding.
"It was something I'd really wanted to do," she recalls. "But when the baby arrived I just had a really terrible time. I had a horrible infection, mastitis, about three times and I needed antibiotics to treat it. It was a really rare situation, but the baby reacted to the antibiotics and we took him to A&E when he was still really small.
"He was just seven days old, and even though he was absolutely fine, it was a frightening experience."
Leah, who lives in east Belfast, persisted with her efforts to breastfeed for an heroic three weeks, as her painful experience continued, but eventually called it a day when there were no signs of improvement.
"It was never not agony," she recalls. "It was pure agony the whole time. I was breastfeeding, and pumping as well, and I think that made it worse. The mastitis came so early on, at about four days, that it never got better.
"A lot of that pressure, women put on themselves and I think I was putting it on myself too. The worry is you could ruin your bond with your baby, but of course when I stopped, that didn't happen. The most important thing a baby needs is their mum, and I was so ill with it at times I really struggled to even pick him up.
"The reality we have to accept is that it works for some women, and it doesn't work for others, and unfortunately for me, it didn't work out. I was sad about it.
"But when I look back to the start it's almost like in those first few weeks it wasn't easy to enjoy the baby. I was healing from a long labour and a C-section, I had blocked ducts and mastitis. Taking that pressure off helped, although it came with an element of guilt too."
And with that in mind, and other new mums coming just a few months behind her with the added pressure of lockdown, Leah says it's important mothers who aren't able to breastfeed feel just as supported as mums who are.
"I think a lot of the pressure comes from ourselves," she says. "But there is a lot of support out there for breastfeeding mums - as there should be. I think it's brilliant, and I know they need that support.
"But it's not the only way, and there are a lot of families in our boat. There should also be that level of support for the mums it hasn't worked out for.
"Sometimes when I was out it felt a bit embarrassing to take out the bottle to feed him, and I really don't think that's the way mums who love their babies should feel."
And having switched to bottle feeding before lockdown kicked in back in March, Leah, Nathan and baby Judah were affected by the spike in panic buying as the public stocked up on everything from toilet roll and pasta to the all-important formula. "That was quite frightening," recalls Leah. "We were absolutely not into that and we really wanted to stay away from any sort of multi-buying.
"But at one point it got really worrying when all the formula just seemed to vanish.
"By that time I wasn't breastfeeding at all, and formula was our only option. We had to go to quite a few supermarkets to get it."
With baby Judah in tow, Leah, who sings and writes Christian music as well as pop songs, is on maternity leave from her day job working with mental health charity Aware NI.
A strong advocate of counselling services, the star, who says she has never suffered from depression or anxiety herself, takes a "maintenance" approach to her mental health, and has spoken to counsellors at different points in her life.
"I lived in Los Angeles for a while after finishing up on The Voice," she says.
"Over there everyone talked about their therapists and counsellors like their best friends, and I totally understand that thinking. The first time I went I was like most people from here when you're asked all about yourself, you just want to boke.
"The whole mentality here is to be self-deprecating and to make fun of ourselves, which is why it's so brilliant.
"But there's a massive problem with mental health in Northern Ireland, and I think people could do with just talking a bit more openly about stuff.
"I go every couple of years just as a bit of a check in, like maintenance.
"It's really helped, even just for a short stint for maybe four months, because it means you can work through any wee things that have bothered or upset you, any wee griefs and heartaches you might have, because let's face it, we all have them.
"You don't have to be at a certain point, right on the edge, before you start to look after your mental health.
"You don't have to be in crisis.
"That's why I really love Aware, it's not crisis intervention, there are amazing charities out there for that, but Aware want to help in the earlier stages of mild to medium depression to help give people the tools to protect their wee minds.
“Going through normal life isn’t easy, so getting a strategy in place is really important. Especially now with all this huge upheaval going on, it’s worth us looking after ourselves.” And with mental health so high on her radar, Leah was conscious of the risks for women when their bundles of joy and sleepless nights arrive like a bolt from the blue.
“Luckily I’ve been really good,” she says. “I think working with Aware I’ve found out a lot about the potential risks, and it’s especially important to be cautious of it in motherhood because it can hit anyone.
“It wasn’t my journey, but know it can be hard for some women, so I’m relieved I haven’t had that sort of challenge to deal with.
“There have been days that are harder than others and I had the third day ‘Baby blues’ — although they really need to give that a name that isn’t so cute because it was the most ridiculous day ever.
“My sanity returned after 24 hours, but I was demented and had every emotion in the space of a day. I was crying to Nathan saying, ‘This is the most beautiful message I’ve ever received’, and read out a text and it was something like, ‘Hi Leah, how are you?’
“I was crying my eyes out and you’re thinking every thought ever and you’re so hard on yourself. It’s like normal hormones times 400, in one huge whirlwind.
“But you figure it out and the mums I met in the first couple of months have been a lifeline, and I’ve been lucky enough to qualify for Surestart and honestly that’s been brilliant. Even now they’re keeping in touch with me every couple of weeks so it’s been a massive help.” As well as her friends and family, people she’s keeping in constant touch with on the phone and with online chats on Zoom, Leah has been relieved that charity worker Nathan has been working from home since lockdown began.
“It’s been really nice having him home,” she says. “From next week though, he’s changing jobs and he’s going to be a key worker out of the house — so it’s back to me and the baby. It’ll be fun though.” And as well as his day job, Nathan (30), has also doubled up as his wife’s tour manager, booking her gigs and managing her performance diary.
The pair met through dating site Bumble while Leah was still living in London, and were married less than a year and a half later.
“Bumble is like the more serious Tinder,” laughs Leah. “And I got a husband on there, so it definitely works. When I first went on I wasn’t on as my real name, I was calling myself Sally Ann. But within a few days of messaging each other Nathan was like, ‘You’re called Leah aren’t you?’
“There’s no hiding in Northern Ireland! I came back home for a family thing then and we had our first date.”
After a while of dating, the couple talked about Nathan moving to London, but in the end it was Leah who made the move home to Belfast. “Moving home after seven years was a big change,” she recalls. “But looking back it was a great move.
“The quality of life here is so lovely. We’re close to the sea, it’s stunning, and we’re close to our families too. The majority of the work I do for music is based in England, but it’s so quick over on a flight that it’s easy to work out.
“And with Nathan, we knew really quickly we were going to be together. We were engaged after just over a year and then we were married four months after that. It was amazing.”
A year and a half after their wedding, recalls Leah, the couple found out about their imminent arrival — backstage at a gig.
“It was mad,” she laughs. “I was literally in the green room on my London show and I was about to go on stage when I took the test, and it was a massive shock. I just had to go straight out and perform.
“It was brilliant because Nathan was there with me — because I’m completely independent he does all my tour management and basically runs everything. I just had a few jobs left to do, a few more gigs, and that was me. I didn’t have to turn anything down because of the pregnancy. By the end I don’t think there would have been a stage big enough to take me.”
Rising to fame aged just 23 after finishing runner-up in the second series of The Voice, paving out a lasting career in music hasn’t been easy.
But with plans to release more original material soon, including a new single later this month, the musician, who has received encouragement through her career from modern hymn-writers Keith and Kristyn Getty, says her priority is taking enjoyment from the creative process and performing, rather than reaching the heights of stardom.
“Your dreams change from when you were a kid,” says Leah. “But never, ever for me was it about being a pop star. I had zero interest in being famous.
“What I wanted to do was to be able to sing forever and that was it really.
“As well as the secular stuff I write, I really enjoy singing Christian music, and at different points in my career I’ve had support from the Gettys and Hillsong Church, which has been fantastic. Kristyn actually used to babysit me when I was a kid, and her dad married me and Nathan.
“The artists I loved growing up were artists like Rickie Lee Jones and Rosie Thomas. You wouldn’t see them all over magazines or on the red carpets but people just loved their music, and they got to tour and perform.
“That’s what I’ve always wanted, and even though not everything has worked out exactly how I’d planned, I’m making my way and along with Judah and Nathan, we’re making a really nice life for our family.”
Leah’s latest single, Rubber, will be out on all platforms on May 19