Dame Sarah Storey

The Breastfeeding Network had a chat with Dame Sarah Storey, the UK’s most decorated female Paralympian, and asked her to share her story of being a professional athlete and breastfeeding mum to her daughter, Louisa.

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What is your experience of breastfeeding, being a Mum and professional athlete?

In the early days it was about training and competing around Louisa and setting my schedule according to her needs. I exclusively breastfed for six months and I fed on demand too. As an athlete this fitted in fine and I just adjusted my training rides so that in the early days I did two short rides a day or stayed on the home trainer so that I could be on hand if I was needed. I did a lot of expressing so there was always milk for when I was out, but Louisa was never really interested in taking the bottle and would go back to sleep until I arrived home!

We introduced solid foods via baby led weaning and I just continued to feed Louisa so she could optimise her nutrition. In the early weeks and months of solids, milk is still a huge portion of the nutrition and I always preferred the idea of Louisa deciding to stop breastfeeding when she was ready. Feeding around training became easier once she moved to solids and gradually over the past year or so we have moved to a point where breastmilk and the comfort of feeding is really only needed at night and when Louisa is upset or needs additional reassurance.

I think being an athlete didn’t make it any more difficult to fit in feeding than any other job and the fact Louisa travels with me everywhere has probably ensured that breastfeeding bond remains strong. Sleep and feeding at night is always a hot topic and sleep is so important for athletes too. We have managed this by always co-sleeping with Louisa and although I was very aware of her feeding in the night, especially when she was tiny, I soon didn’t stir to being completely awake and so was able to get more rest through feeding on my side in bed and drifting back to sleep after winding/burping her. This also helped Louisa stay asleep too. We still co-sleep and will do for as long as is needed for us all to get enough sleep and Louisa to feel independent enough to sleep on her own. My experience is that Louisa will settle for me anywhere in the world because she has me as a constant and that bond means she will not get anxious at night.

What influenced your choices to breastfeed?

I never thought of not breastfeeding. My mum and sister both breastfed exclusively and I have always paid attention to my own diet being natural and unprocessed. Breastfeeding was something Louisa had sorted as soon as she was born and it was truly amazing to see Mother Nature at work. Whilst I didn’t have a natural birth and Louisa given to me for my husband to cut the cord [it was an Emergency C Section after Louisa got stuck] once Louisa did get given to me she found my breast and fed for 3 hours straight. I couldn’t have been happier!

How was your experience of breastfeeding?

I have loved it. I think there is something amazing about watching your baby grow and knowing you have been able to do that from your own body. I have always been relaxed about feeding and in the early days gave Louisa all the time she needed to feed. I never watched the clock or timed her between feeds or wrote anything down to see if there was a pattern. I had her weighed on a regular basis and because she was always gaining weight just allowed everything to happen. Those first six months flew by and I couldn’t believe we were on to solids and thinking up what to give Louisa for dinner too.

What support did you have to help you when you first became a Mum?          

My husband and family and friends. I didn’t need any more but the Health Visiting and Midwifery team were all there too and that was useful for the odd time when we wondered if Louisa was poorly and could phone the ward to check. I had a lot of comments from the NHS staff that I was making it look easy and I wasn’t like a first time mum, but I think that was because I was 35 and had been around babies in the family my whole life. I had a little checklist if Louisa was upset and that was Milk, Wind, Nappy, Sleep and Cuddles. Both my husband and I used a baby sling with Louisa and this was a brilliant way to keep her calm and peaceful right the way through to beyond her first birthday.

When you got back into training did you need particular support? What did this look like?

I obviously needed my husband or parents to look after Louisa when I was training and in the first six months that meant Barney [husband] coming to the track with Louisa so I could feed her in the stands between training efforts if required. I couldn’t have got back to training without full time support at home so we decided early on that although Barney wasn’t competing internationally anymore he would remain self employed so that he could work around the needs of Louisa and my training. Losing a full-time income was hard at first but we are used to it now and find it better that we don’t have to worry about paying for a nursery and that Louisa can travel with us everywhere. Apart from Louisa, my competition is reliant on Barney being there to help me out so I am fortunate that he is happy and able to be a full-time Dad.

Did you always plan to breastfeed once you restarted training and competing?

I didn’t make any plans, I always said I would let nature take its course and that Louisa would stop feeding when she was ready. I could never refuse her breastfeeding because she can’t use the words to explain to me why she needs it and if she is flexible enough to allow me to travel the world and compete it is the least I can do to help her develop. I get the sense of her relaxing and rejuvenating when she feeds and I think if it helps to lower her stress levels during such big developmental leaps then it can only be a good thing. I have also read a lot about “natural term breastfeeding” and don’t think it really is all that strange to be feeding a toddler. A health visitor once tried to tell me there is no point because we have safe drinking water and breastfed toddlers are only fed in countries with poor sanitary conditions. Then I see how calm and happy it makes her and I think well it can’t be all about nutrition, even though there are still plenty of nutritional and health benefits to breastmilk however long you have been feeding.

Were there any challenges you faced and how did you overcome them?

I guess the challenges are when something in racing clashes with something Louisa needs. There are certain races I can’t pick and choose doing, like the World Championships or my Hour Record Attempt, but then the smaller races that don’t matter as much are ones where I can make decisions for Louisa’s benefit. So when she was 5 months old I pulled out of a race because when the schedule came out I was due to be racing at 10pm. I didn’t see the point of racing for the sake of it and causing undue stress to Louisa would was usually cuddling and feeding at that time. In fact I wouldn’t be afraid to make the same decision now. If I thought a less important race required too much travelling between stages or was going to be an upheaval for Louisa then I wouldn’t ride. My mum put her career on hold while she stayed at home with my brother and sister and me, so I have always grown up knowing that the children are the most important thing.

In terms of breastfeeding the challenges were pretty tame in comparison to what some women go through. I was a bit sore from overuse at times and had a supply that could have fed triplets so my clothes were often drenched! I was very fortunate that nothing was major.

Are there any benefits that you can share about continuing to breastfeed as a professional athlete?

My team nutritionist told me that I will be producing more immunoglobules while I am breastfeeding and so that will protect me as much as Louisa. You also release the hormone oxytocin when you breastfeed so I think that definitely helps you relax after a hard day training. Some people try and say that the lactic acid will get in the milk, or the exertion will make the milk taste funny but I think these are just rumours to put people off.

Hydration is important when you breastfeed, however infrequently and since my body fat mass has gone down, I think it is also true to say that it helps keep you lean. I gained 4 stone in pregnancy so was grateful for breastfeeding helping me lose the weight!

How do you balance the physical and mental investment you make as a professional athlete with being a mother and continuing breastfeeding?

I don’t really know, I just take each situation as it comes and accept there will be times when I may be a bit more tired than I would have been previously. Being an athlete is generally a very selfish existence so I guess being able to combine it with breastfeeding makes little sense, but I guess that is my ying and yang, I can be single-minded and ruthless on a bike and hopefully a good mum off!

If you could sum up in one or two sentences what breastfeeding means for you and your little one what would it be?

Breastfeeding has helped us bond, stay bonded and know each other inside out. Louisa is easy to settle, flexible to travel and a happy, contented child makes for a happy contented Mum. In the sports world we say a happy athlete is a fast one, so it all links well!