Jul 29 , 2021
Moms in our community continue to inspire us. Today, we have the pleasure of speaking with Trillitye Paullin, Ph.D. and CEO/Founder of Free to Feed™, a company that gives breastfeeding parents confidence to improve infant health. She is the mom to two beautiful daughters, both of whom had severe food sensitivities as infants.
Trillitye shares more of her story below, most notably, how her own experience has helped to empower other moms also raising infants with food sensitivities.
Tell us a bit about your background?
I'm an Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran, who was first deployed at age nineteen. So, early on, I was very aware that there were opportunities available to me in the United States that women in other countries don’t have.
When I returned from deployment, I decided to pursue a PhD in cellular and molecular biology. I started out getting my bachelor's degree in biology and chemistry. During that time, I was able to work in a cancer research lab as an undergrad for Dr. Heidi Super. She's absolutely amazing with all the leukemia research she spearheads.
Later, I went on to get my Ph.D. My grad school research focused on protein analysis (also known as proteomics). Essentially, I was manipulating proteins to make ovarian cancer patients really susceptible to chemotherapy. It was a pretty cool job!
What did your breastfeeding journey look like?
In my final year of grad school, I had our first daughter, June. She was a rough introduction into the world with an emergency c-section. We started breastfeeding and breastfeeding was hard. It was not the magical, wonderful thing that I thought everybody said it would be.
One of the hardest things about it was that she cried all the time. She was inconsolable. Our doctors said that she was a colicy baby, but as a mom, I knew there was a deeper issue at play. As it turned out, there was. At three weeks old, my husband and I woke up to find her completely covered in eczema from head to toe, and with several bloody diapers.
The pediatrician suggested I remove cow's milk protein from my diet. My mind was blown, because I literally study proteins for a living. At no point did anybody tell me that something that I put in my mouth could end up in my boob and cause my baby an allergic response.
I eliminated cow’s milk from my diet, but unfortunately, it didn’t help. June spiraled and got worse. It got so bad that at one point the only thing coming out of her little body was blood. Her skin was weeping and the eczema was infectious.
What eventually helped little June?
A GI took pity on me and admitted us to the hospital for 24-hour observation. While there, I pumped in the stairwell of the hospital, and they didn't feed June for 24 hours. It was absolutely awful. They determined that June had a severe food allergy but that they can’t test her to find out what that allergy is. They gave me hypoallergenic formula made out of corn syrup. It pretty much smelled like gym socks and cost $50 a pop.
Quite frankly, I couldn’t afford to pay $50 for formula every few days. I was a grad student and could barely feed myself. I asked the hospital if it would be possible for me to make my own hypoallergenic breastmilk. They said, “yes, but it will suck.” I’ve been in the army for a long time, so I’ve done lots of things that suck. I decided to take on this challenge.
I left the hospital with a crazy long list of foods that could elicit responses, and told that since they can't tell me which allergen June is resistant to, I should remove all of them from my diet. I went on this very strict elimination diet and I pumped like a madwoman for two weeks while June took the pre-made formula (because I was told that it would take two weeks for my breast milk to clear of anything that I ate, which I would later discover is not actually true).
I did eventually get her back to breastfeeding, which was a miracle, because after two weeks of formula, it's really hard to get kids to go back to nursing. I did this for a year and lost a lot of weight in the process. I also had a lot of postpartum mental issues, and really broke my relationship with food. In the midst of that I also turned very heavily to alcohol as a coping mechanism when food was no longer something that I could use as comfort.
What was the turning point for you?
Three years after June was born, we had our second daughter, and she had the same problem. I couldn’t believe it. I was still battling alcoholism at that point and I knew I couldn’t do this over again.
As a scientist, I started digging into all the research and what I found was that none of the information that was proven out in scientific literature matched what I was told in the hospital. For example, it does not take several weeks for something that you put in your mouth to leave your boob. Conceptually, that doesn't even make sense. But as a new parent, you trust what you’re told and don’t question it. It doesn’t make sense that something you eat is going to be in your boob for several weeks.
Research shows that when you consume a food, it peaks quickly and clears quickly, usually within a day. This means that I don't have to pump like a madwoman for two weeks. I didn't have to be so afraid of food, because that meant that anytime that I ate something, I had this significant fear that if it was the wrong thing, I would poison my baby for two weeks. This is literally what I was told at the hospital.
Tell us about Free to Feed™
My goal was to hide in the back of a lab for the rest of my life doing research. Yet here I am starting a biotech company.
The idea for Free to Feed™ began when I was five weeks postpartum with Rose, our second daughter. I was working for a dairy processing facility at the time, and teaching lab techs how to use this really simple test to test cow's milk for cross contact with other proteins. I wondered what would happen if I snuck into a closet and squirted some breast milk on this test slip (similar to a pregnancy test). We do this for cows; I want to know what's in my breast milk, too.
It didn’t work, so I took the next steps in developing a viable solution for other moms whose babies have severe food allergies. I started Free to Feed™ with the goal of creating a test trip to allow parents to test the presence of allergens at home, to give an ingredient deck for the boob. The fact that it doesn't exist is egregious.
As we build our product, we offer support to parents. We have a yearly subscription that offers content and support to parents, as well as educational modules that cover everything from explaining what allergens are to how to talk to daycare providers about your baby’s allergies. It’s basically all the things I wish I knew and wasn’t told.
What can we look forward to?
I just finished working on a cookbook that is available when you schedule a consultation, and we’ve developed a multivitamin for lactating parents. It doesn’t exist on the market yet, so we will be the first.***
About Free to Feed™
Free to Feed helps parents navigate food allergies through science-based subscriptions, content, and products. We understand the perils of safely and sanely feeding children with food allergies because we have lived it ourselves.