Milk fever. The breastfeeding issue affecting cows and mums

While out running, Annie Ridout fell over. She didn’t trip, her body simply stopped working for a moment and collapsed. A trip to the doctors, followed by blood tests, revealed a calcium deficiency as the cause. In dairy farming, it’s called Milk Fever…

I waited until my son was three months old before putting my running shoes back on. After that, I ran almost every morning, gradually increasing in speed and intensity. It felt good to be exercising and the fresh air helped to wake up both my body and mind after a bad night’s sleep.

But one morning I left my house, ran to the top of the road, crossed over and then collapsed. I had no idea what had happened – I was running one minute, lying awkwardly on the pavement the next. A lovely woman pulled me to my feet and I stood there, confused.

I wasn’t sure whether I’d blacked out or tripped. But I hadn’t hurt my feet, or felt anything in front of them. However, I’m not a fainter. I never faint. So I put it down to an extremely serious illness that I’d deal with once home – and continued on with my run.

The next day, I went to see the doctor. Because of some mild dizziness I’d been experiencing, he diagnosed me with vertigo. I was given some very strong anti-psychotic drugs that he told me were safe to use while breastfeeding. So I took one, and then another, before thinking: I better just check this. Turns out it can be harmful to the nursing baby. That was the end of that.

I decided to get a second opinion. After all, I wasn’t feeling particularly anxious and was rarely feeling dizzy – certainly not while sitting still or lying. This time, the doctor (a different one) agreed to send me for blood tests. I was already taking iron supplements left over from pregnancy anemia but wondered if they weren’t strong enough.

The blood tests revealed a calcium deficiency. I started taking calcium tabs and that put an end to the lightheadedness. And to the falling over. Also, I’d been banging into walls and doors in an uncharacteristically clumsy way, which was apparently also down to the deficiency. This stopped too.

I was surprised that not having enough calcium could cause so many problems – and so quickly. A bit of light googling taught me that breastfeeding can cause calcium deficiency. In fact, nursing mothers often lose three to five per cent of their bone mass during breastfeeding (though it returns a year after she stops breastfeeding).

But what surprised me more was that us women aren’t the only ones to experience calcium deficiency when breastfeeding.

My father-in-law used to be a dairy farmer – and still has a few cows. When I told him about my fall, and it being down to calcium deficiency, he said this happens to cows, too. If their calves are taking too much milk, the mummy will lose control of her body and topple over, just like I did.

It’s called milk fever. And as well as humans and cows, can affect dogs and other animals while they’re nursing their young. It happens because the babe takes all the vitamins he needs first, and if the mother doesn’t have a large enough store, calcium will then be drawn from her bones.

I’d never really felt a connection to the animal kingdom before becoming a mum. But I remember looking down at my newborn daughter while she breastfed, tapping her tiny hand on my breast to stimulate the milk supply, and thinking she looked just like a tiny kitten.

Since then, I’ve often felt more connected to nature by my motherhood journey. A baby’s simple needs: milk, warmth, nurturing – are the same for all mammals. When I used to express milk, I joked that I felt like a cow being milked. Now I know that it wasn’t so far from the truth.

Have you suffered with milk fever – a calcium deficiency while breastfeeding?