Dr Alice Roberts-Thomson is one of our fabulous NDC accredited GPs. We love sharing our own stories with patients about our struggles with breastfeeding or parenting. You can also read Dr Briony and Dr Rhiannon’s stories as some of our first published Blog Posts.
Here is Dr Alice’s Journey
This is a rather long and raw account about my own transition to motherhood. I appreciate that this may be triggering for some people who have experienced birth trauma or infant loss so please be mindful when reading.
This is my story – I look forward to hearing yours.
I had a very ‘shiny’ idea of what becoming a mother would be like. Motherhood, I told myself, was my ‘calling’. Of course, despite my best efforts to ‘do it right’ and ‘follow the rules’, I got quite the shock when a gaping chasm started opening between my lofty expectations and reality.
Despite an initial scare at our 12 week ultrasound, my first pregnancy in the end was fairly unremarkable. Our first major deviation from ‘normal’ came at delivery when my baby’s shoulders got stuck. Whilst this was very skilfully managed, I will never erase from my memory the image of her flat, purple little body lying on the end of my bed. An alarm went off and within an instant the room was filled with people. My husband sat right by my side, looking me in the eyes and tried to keep me calm as I kept asking: ‘why won’t she cry?’ When after what felt like an eternity we heard her first cry it was sheer relief and nothing else that hit me. A little bundle of chequered multi-coloured blanket was presented to me for a quick cuddle before being promptly whisked off to the nursery for further evaluation. There was no skin to skin time, no early breast feed, no baby in my arms to cuddle. We hadn’t even decided on a name. My hubby went to be with our baby as I waited in the delivery suite for some news. As the time slipped by, I descended into a rabbit hole of panic, concocting stories in my mind as to what had gone wrong and why everything was taking so long.
The next few days were a blur. My baby spent the majority of her time in the nursery isolet. I would go back to my room and try to pump colostrum then return at the 3 hour mark to give her a ‘finger feed’. Formula was mentioned but I was determined to feed her breastmilk and fortunately I had an abundant supply. My protruding nipples that had long been a source of embarrassment in my teens were finally able to prove their worth and by day 3 my little babe was sucking at the breast! We had turned a corner. She didn’t lose too much weight and we were discharged home on day 5 with her fully breast-feeding. I was so relieved that we’d all survived what was a challenging start and now my ’perfect’ motherhood journey could begin.
But this was not to be. It was at the routine 2 weeks postpartum visit that the wheels really started to fall off. Despite me thinking that things were going well, it became apparent that my little girl hadn’t been gaining as much weight as she should be. This also coincided with her being more fussy at the breast and more unsettled in general. I started on the path that so many other mothers have trodden – the ‘triple feeding’ prescription: breast feed, pump, bottle top up, repeat. My fridge and freezer were a sea of ‘liquid gold’ and the sink was a revolving door of bottles in and bottles out. Every time she was weighed I would hold my breath and felt like it was a personal affront when the scales would show no change, or a gain of only 10 or 20 grams. Her growth curve showed a horrific trajectory and she eventually fell completely off the chart. Again, I was advised to switch to formula but I was adamant to breast feed (and she didn’t really take the bottle either). We tried fortifying my expressed milk for extra calories, using a feed thickener and purchased every type of bottle on the shelf. We treated her for ‘reflux’. I started a dairy and soy exclusion diet which meant I became both an almond milk latte and haighs dark chocolate connoisseur, and an avid reader of ingredient labels. The option of feeding her via a tube was also discussed. Somehow she managed to gain just enough weight avoid this, but it was slow going and soul-destroying.
She also wouldn’t sleep. I read all the books, I tried all the routines. I tried putting her down calm but awake, I looked for tired signs and tried not letting her get overtired. I watched the clock so as not to miss her awake windows, I tried not to create sleep associations. I even didn’t leave the house for an entire week in an attempt to develop proper routine. My expectations for being ‘the perfect mother’ were so far removed from my reality and despite having wanted this so much, I was left feeling a weird mix of anger and resentment, but also guilt, grief and despair.
By this time she was also crying for most of the day and night. My hubby was back to work in a very demanding job with little time available to help at home. And while I had an amazing support network, often it was just me and a very unsettled baby alone at home. I sought help far and wide and we consulted what felt like a hospital’s worth of experts – GPs, lactation consultants, sleep consultants, general paediatrics, gastroenterology, neurology, paediatric surgery, genetics, speech therapy, physiotherapy, occupational therapy, and more. Everyone would tell me to do something different, but no one could really understand why my baby wouldn’t feed or sleep and the issues with her poor weight gain and unsettled behaviour continued. My worry, fear and exhaustion grew.
Eventually at about the 4 month mark I was admitted to Torrens House (SA’s public inpatient service for families with feeding, sleep and settling challenges). I had 2 back-to-back admissions there where a wonderful combination of sensitive care, validation and some well-overdue rest helped me start to turn things around. It was the first time I realised that maybe this wasn’t an intrinsic failing of mine as a mother or something I was doing wrong. This was actually just really, really hard.
As I came out of the fog that was the first 9 months of my baby’s life I started thinking about returning to work. While my story was my own, I came to understand the challenges that new families came up against and how hard it was to find good evidence-based advice and support. Feeling like a failure, struggling with the transition to motherhood (I now know and love the term ‘matrescence’) and finding that traditional approaches to infant care didn’t really fit with my values – these were not unique to me. A dear friend and GP colleague of mine put me onto Possums, ‘The Discontented little Baby’ book and the work of Dr Pamela Douglas. Finally, I felt like I had found something that made biological sense and that gives parents the knowledge and tools to properly navigate this precious, but often difficult time with their babies.
In early 2021 my then 4 year old was diagnosed with an extremely rare genetic condition that is commonly associated with feeding issues in infancy. So we now know that at least some of our early challenges were likely resultant from this. This is a story for another day (if you are interested to read more you can click this link for the post I wrote for rare disease day), but I still do wonder whether I might have been able to enjoy those early weeks and months with her more if I had done things differently.
I have also now had the joy of having another 2 beautiful daughters. With my new-found knowledge and the tools I have learnt, I was able to be so much more relaxed with my littlest babies and subsequently found my time with them to be so much more enjoyable.
I know that there is no right or wrong way to mother, to parent, to feed or settle your baby and that every family will experiment to find the things that do and don’t work for them. I do believe though, that with the right support we can equip families with the knowledge, skills and power to thrive and enjoy this oft-challenging but surprisingly short and incredibly precious time with their babies as much as possible.
I would love to hear your story, work with your values and support you in your journey.
-by Dr Alice Roberts-Thomson