A Co Londonderry mum has taken personalised gifts to a whole new level by making glass ornaments from breast milk, umbilical cords, placenta, baby teeth and even baby ashes.
As personalised goods emerged as the most sought-after gifts over Christmas, Helen Hancock worked round the clock to meet demand for glass baubles infused with breast milk.
The single mum-of-two came through two traumatic birth experiences as well as a miscarriage which led her to combine her love of glass-making with giving parents a lasting memento of their babies.
Her human milk glass is in huge demand as a very special keepsake — while parents who have been shattered by a stillbirth can have part of their baby’s placenta, umbilical cord and even ashes crafted into a beautiful lasting tribute.
Helen (45), who is mum to George (9) and Lily (11), studied glass blowing at university and worked in a studio in America for a few years after graduation.
On returning home, she sought other work as there were no opportunities here to join a glass blowing studio. It was after experiencing extreme pain while breastfeeding her two children and unable to get support that she trained as a breastfeeding counsellor.
She explains: “I met my children’s father in 2002 and in 2007 we bought an old wreck of a house in Donegal to renovate.
“We were living in a tiny touring caravan with no running water and no toilet when I got pregnant with Lily.
“I ended up having a caesarean which was horrific and the recovery was awful and breastfeeding was utter hell.
“Doing it all in such a small space with no mod cons and a newborn was also really tough.
“I felt isolated and broken and there was no help or support. I got pregnant again 11 months later and lost the baby at 26 weeks which was also really traumatising.
“The next year George was born and again his birth was horrendous and breastfeeding was agony and nobody could tell me why.”
She was relieved to find a local support group and felt encouraged to train to help other mums.
Helen completed a two-year training course with the Irish Childbirth Trust to qualify as a breastfeeding counsellor and then trained as a doula.
She says: “When I had my own birth and feeding trauma I needed to know why.
“I wanted to prevent these things happening to other women.
“So I became the person I wished I had by my side when I needed them the most.
“Where I am from in the north west has the lowest statistics for breastfeeding in the world and I thought I should try and reach out to mums there and dispel some of the myths so I also trained in baby massage and baby yoga.”
The break-up of her relationship in 2016 saw her return home to Derry to start from scratch.
Shortly after she rediscovered her joy of glass making which she managed to combine with her passion for helping support new mums.
She recalls: “I lost my business and my home and had to rebuild my life again.
“Around that time I came across a lovely lady in Canada called Mel online who was making little glass bowls for breast feeding.
“I contacted her and she suggested I give it a go. I never thought I would but just a couple of weeks later an old friend from college contacted me to say he was glass blowing again and asked if I wanted to hire a studio with him. That was at the beginning of 2017 and I had zero confidence and even felt embarrassed to say that I knew how to blow glass.
“I couldn’t believe how all my skills came back to me, it was really amazing. I found myself in this studio and it was just beautiful, it gave me so much hope at a time when I had no hope.”
Helen’s Canadian friend had experimented with infusing breast milk into glass but it didn’t work out. However, it gave Helen the idea to experiment and she worked hard to perfect the art. She recalls: “When Mel did it, the milk went grey and gooey in the glass.
“I was still running a support group for breastfeeding mums and I ran the idea past them and thought they would turn their noses up but they were beating down my door, coming to me with bags of breast milk.
“In the first weekend I tried it, I had 23 mums bring me their milk and I was inundated that whole first week and it hasn’t stopped ever since.
“In December I was doing Christmas baubles and it was bauble mania.”
Helen perfected a technique to prevent the glass going grey and discovered a method she keeps top secret.
Bizarrely during the heating process the glass replicates the ducts which milk would flow through on a woman’s breast.
She explains: “The milk makes the glass crack and then it settles in the cracks so that they look like the veins you would see on a mammogram.
“I have had lactation experts from all over the world ask me to exhibit at their conferences but because of lockdown it didn’t happen.”
Her own experience of baby loss made her very aware of the trauma facing parents which led her to introduce glass making using the placenta, umbilical cord and ashes. She explains: “The placenta and umbilical cord are very much part of the baby which can be infused in glass.
“I am always overwhelmed by the response to the glass when the mother first holds it in her hands. She will often begin to cry. The surprise of seeing something so special and totally unique to her can be so emotional.”
Her creativity knows no bounds and having no breast milk of her own to create a special memento of her own children, Helen had the idea of using their milk teeth.
She adds: “I really wanted to have something for myself, a piece of hot glass that would represent my time with my young children and something they could look at when they are older or have for generations to come.
“I was astonished when the teeth turned gold during the process so you have this lovely golden ball in the glass.
“I finally had a little piece of DNA preserved for all eternity in glass.”
n Helen works from her home studio in Derry city and you can find out more about her work at www.helenhancockglass.com