Breastfeeding my baby Rhys helped me to cope as he clung to life
A grieving mother has described the power of breastfeeding as the experience that helped her cope as her baby son clung to life.
Kelly Bramwell found out at her 20-week scan that her baby had a potentially deadly heart defect.
And while doctors warned her to expect the worst, the beauty therapist from Annalong, Co Down, never imagined the trauma that lay ahead.
"It was the worst day when we found out, nothing can prepare you for hearing your baby is going to be very sick when they're born," said Kelly.
Rhys arrived into the world on November 10, 2016.
Kelly (34), who has been married to Paul (41), a sales manager, for five years, was allowed limited time to hold him before he was whisked away to the neonatal intensive care unit.
"I got about 10 minutes with him but it felt like seconds," she said.
It was far from an ideal beginning to the breastfeeding experience, but Kelly - also mum to four-year-old Rueben - was determined to make it work.
Given his medical condition, Rhys was initially unable to feed directly from Kelly in the early days.
Speaking out about her harrowing ordeal to coincide with World Breastfeeding Week, she explained: "I expressed so they could give the milk to him through a tube. Then when he got strong enough I started to try breastfeeding him myself and we got there eventually. He just kept fighting and I have such precious memories. It meant so much to me that I would be able to feed him, especially because he was so unwell and I knew it would be really good for him."
She continued: "When everything else in the ICU was complete chaos, I just felt such peace and such a bond with him when I was feeding him. I took every opportunity I could to have him near me, close to me, so he knew I loved him.
"Breastfeeding was a time for just the two of us, a time for me to be able to do something for Rhys when most of the time I felt completely helpless," she added.
And throughout his time in hospital, there were countless moments when Kelly felt overwhelmed.
The first of many traumas came as Rhys was taken away for bowel surgery when he was less than a week old.
A few weeks later Kelly, Paul and Rueben travelled with Rhys to Birmingham for him to undergo the first of a series of planned open heart surgeries.
He did so well that he was finally allowed to go home when he was three months old. Kelly said: "I'll never forget the first night at home and the four of us in the living room together and thinking 'thank God we weren't in hospital anymore', it was just perfect."
Tragically, Rhys' health was about to take a turn for the worst. Kelly and Paul noticed that he didn't appear to be himself and his nose was becoming more and more blue.
They decided to ring Clark Clinic, Northern Ireland's children's specialist heart unit, for advice and the nurse asked them to bring Rhys in for a check-up. It turned out that Rhys had developed sepsis.
Kelly continued: "He was so sick that he had to go straight back to intensive care and the panic came straight back, it felt like hell and I just couldn't understand why this was happening to us."
Rhys became so unwell that he was rushed back to Birmingham where surgeons discovered the area around a stent inserted previously was badly infected.
"His wee body was breaking and then eventually the discussion with the doctors started to change and I didn't want to listen, I didn't want that to be our story," continued Kelly.
"Through it all I kept feeding him whenever I could, it was all I had to keep me going, that and my faith."
The family remained at Rhys' side in hospital in Birmingham until he finally lost his fight for life aged just seven and a half months old.
Kelly continued: "You could sense it in the air, it was really unusual. It was a terrifying but sacred experience because we were there as a family and we knew it was his last few hours and it had to be so, so special.
"It was honestly unreal, it was like an out of this world experience and I felt Rhys' spirit rise up, it was incredible. You know, he never knew hurt, he only ever knew he was adored from the moment he was born to the moment he died.
"The times that I could feed Rhys and see his wee smiling face, he was perfect. And those memories are perfect."
Information about breastfeeding can be found on the Public Health Agency's website, www.breastfedbabies.org.