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Milk and motherhood: Referee Holly Wood on donating breast milk and returning to rugby

By Imogen Ainsworth
Credit: Holly Wood

English referee Holly Wood was recently appointed to referee her first international Test match just shy of four months after giving birth to her son.

The match, Scotland v Spain, was a warm-up game ahead of the recent WXV competitions, where she then went on to travel to South Africa to officiate in WXV2. Wood went on to referee her second test match there, Samoa vs Japan. The tournament spanned just over three weeks, which required her to travel away from her young family for the majority of the time.


As a breastfeeding mother, travelling away from her baby presented an additional stressor for Wood, as it would any mother in her situation.

Faced with the conundrum of what to do with her milk while her son wasn’t there, she began to look into solutions.

After unearthing the significant financial cost involved in freezing and shipping her breast milk back home for her son, she began to look at donating to local charities in Cape Town.

Wood shared her story in a post on Instagram with the caption: “Got milk? Being away from our baby boy for two weeks, whilst on World Rugby duty, was always going to be difficult, especially with the added stress of keeping up my milk supply.

“Grateful that I was able to donate all of my breast milk, that I expressed in that time to @milkmattersmilkbank which made it a bit easier, knowing that not a drop would go to waste.

“5.6 litres donated, which equates to 112 days of food for premature babies across private and state hospitals in Cape Town and beyond.”



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A post shared by H O L L Y • W O O D (@hjmyers14)

She spoke to RugbyPass about the complexities of the situation and the inspiring solution that she discovered, as well as her return to rugby after the birth of her son and the support she has received.

“With breastfeeding it’s an interesting one. I wanted to continue breastfeeding coming back from South Africa. I knew that if I didn’t express milk while I was there, my milk supply would probably dry up within one to two weeks and that I would probably be unable to breastfeed from then on,” she explained.

“I knew that I had to express which is fine and is part of it. I looked into companies that help you ship frozen breast milk, and it was absolutely extortionate, so I decided I couldn’t do that.


“I knew that milk banks existed and I came across one based at Mowbray Maternity Hospital in Cape Town called Milk Matters, so got in touch with them and the CEO of the charity was brilliant, and got back to me straight away.

“They organised the logistics of coming to pick up the milk. I was going down every 24 hours with bags of milk to the concierge at the hotel asking them to put it in the freezers. Explaining it to the front desk for the first couple of times was a bit of a challenge and they didn’t really understand it, but then they started saying: “We know we have to put it in the freezer, it’s all good.” The charity did two milk pickups, one Monday and then the Monday that I left as well.”

The solution, while primarily the most practical option to be able to retain her milk supply without wasting the milk, also provided Wood with the motivation to continue pumping knowing that she would be helping babies in need.

“I’ve had a couple of friends whose babies were premature and a family member whose baby was really premature. I know the qualities and power of breast milk and I definitely think if my baby was premature and my milk hadn’t come in yet, because it takes about three days for it to do so, that I would look at using donor milk,” she said.

“For me, it gave me motivation to keep pumping because I wanted to continue breastfeeding my baby, but equally knowing that you’re helping premature and vulnerable babies, as it also goes to babies whose mothers are too ill to nurse and breastfeed them. In a country like South Africa where there is quite a lot of poverty, helping those babies in need was quite rewarding. It’s nice knowing that you can make some good out of what could be a stressful situation.

“I definitely would [look to do it again]. My husband and I are going to Dubai at the end of this month to referee in the Sevens, luckily our boy is coming out with us, along with my in-laws, to babysit, but I’ve got a few trips next year and if I’m still breastfeeding then, it would be my first point of call to look for a local breast milk bank. Pumping and dumping as they say can be quite heartbreaking so knowing that it’s going to somewhere where it will be put to good use is more worthwhile.”

Wood was taken aback by the positive reaction and influx of messages she received after sharing the post on Instagram about her donation after initially being hesitant to publish her story on social media.

While she is by no means the first or last woman in sport to continue to work through pregnancy and then return as a mother, she hopes that more exposure to the intricacies that are intertwined with motherhood and a career in sport, will mean change is continued to be promoted and conversations will carry on being had, especially within English rugby.

“I’m not the first player or referee to get pregnant. There are quite a lot of girls who play in the Australian National Rugby League, who have families and they get back to playing at a high standard and internationally as well. In terms of England, I think we’re quite behind in terms of rugby and females starting a family alongside, there’s currently only a very small handful of us, but I think it just takes a couple of people to do it and show that you can, to set a precedent for other who aspire to do the same.

“In terms of sharing the breast milk donation on social media, I was not sure about whether to do so, but I was actually really overwhelmed by all of the positive messages, comments and private messages. There were a few lads who are in the Professional Game Match Official Team (PGMOT) reposted it on their [Instagram] stories saying how amazing it is, so it’s nice to get the recognition from the guys as well.”

Wood continued refereeing up until she was six months pregnant and trained to keep up her fitness until just a couple of days before giving birth. She made her return to officiating in August, just nine weeks after her son was born.

“I exercised the whole way through my pregnancy and was running and weight lifting until a couple of days before birth which I think has really helped my recovery,” the former Stade Toulousain and Harlequins player explained.

“The first couple of weeks post-birth is always tough, but then I went back to the gym after three weeks to test things out and see what I felt like. From week four, I started to feel like myself again so started training properly, and then I refereed nine weeks post-birth in a national league pre-season friendly, and then hit the ground running again for the start of the season in September.

“My fitness is something that I’ve always prided myself on. I train at CrossFit Aylesbury and the coaches supported my training throughout pregnancy, and have done all of my programming postpartum, to help me get back fit for rugby. We had fitness testing out in South Africa which I was a bit worried about, but I ended up getting one of the best scores out of everybody so I was really pleased.

“Overall the way that my body has reacted has been a lot better than I anticipated and I purely put that down to the amount that I trained during pregnancy and making sure I stayed fit and functional throughout.

“For me, the biggest shock was getting my first international test match a week short of 4 months postpartum, that was pretty amazing. I didn’t expect it at all, I thought possibly Six Nations at a push or the following year at WXV I might get a shot, but getting it so soon was really unexpected.”

Throughout her motherhood journey, she has felt well-supported by both the RFU and World Rugby and described the nuanced changes that have been put in place that have made her return to refereeing as smooth as possible.

“The RFU have been brilliant. I live quite central in the country in Buckinghamshire so I fall into the West refereeing group, meaning I could be sent down to Cornwall every week to referee on a Saturday. They moved me over to the East group because more clubs in that area were closer to home and my support network, to be able to arrange ‘sideline babysitters’ from family and friends,” she said.

“I do have to exchange to other regions but I’ll get a heads up on those appointments a few weeks in advance, to make sure that I can organise adequate childcare and have those logistics sorted. My husband also referees and works in Formula 1 so he’s either got a game or is away at a race as well. My match day routine has changed slightly, in that, I’ll always breastfeed our son about 30-40 minutes before kick-off at the ground, to make sure he’s content and I don’t leak through my shirt on the pitch – can you imagine explaining that one to 30 men!

“World Rugby have been very supportive. I was lucky enough that I was able to fly my husband and my son out to South Africa for a week during WXV. They joined the group and came out for dinners and did tourist activities with us so that was really enjoyable and everybody welcomed them with open arms. A few of the referees and managers said that it made their trip having the baby there because it calms everyone and when you feel you could be under pressure in an environment like that, having someone’s family members there brings you back to what really matters; family.”

Upon announcing her pregnancy to the RFU, Wood supplied them with a pregnancy policy she had written for match officials that included key areas she felt needed to be understood by the governing body.

“For me, it was about the RFU understanding that there are a lot of different levels of female referees. You have societies, National Panel, and then you’ve got the PGMOT, so it was basically covering all bases so that everybody, at all levels, have a framework to go off.

“With that, it was really important to me that when a woman decides to stop refereeing when she’s pregnant, she enters back into refereeing at the same level when she returns. That means in societies no one can tell them ‘Because you’ve had a baby we’re going to drop you a few levels’, because I don’t think that’s right. You should go back in at the level that you stopped at.

“There was another part added around breastfeeding as well which is another really important element. Typically at rugby clubs we still share changing rooms with the guys that we work with so being able to go to a club and making societies aware that perhaps if a woman has her baby at a game where she’s refereeing, that she’s going to need that private space as well.”

In addition to the support she has received from her employers, Wood also credits the network of people around her who have aided her return to rugby.

“I’ve got a very strong mindset mentally but I wouldn’t be able to do without the support of my family. I’ve got friends who have travelled to games to have Huxley on the sideline, I’ve got my parents and my husband’s parents who come to games, sisters and brothers, who all help out. In terms of people putting up their hand wanting to help, and making my journey and aspirations possible, I’m very lucky. I’m just hoping that all of our sacrifices will be worth it, and when it all comes to an end, we can look back at this special time with fond memories.”


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