Unnatural Consequences: Mama-Baby Hospital Separation

A TV news reporter called me today. She wants me to make an on-camera comment about a recent mix-up in a Virginia, MN hospital.  Despite the many safety procedures hospitals are required to have in place, a newborn baby was placed in the wrong mama’s arms for a few brief minutes, and perhaps nursed on a breast that did not belong to him. The families involved are understandably shook up. I’m sure the poor nurse is horrified, and probably in trouble. Hospital administrators instantly and publically abandoned one identification procedure in exchange for another.

And the local media is on it like a chicken on a grasshopper, as my grandmother used to say. Which is to say they’ve found a story that puts fear in the hearts of parents everywhere, and it’s being reported as if the baby had vanished rather than be dropped off in the wrong room.

Hard to imagine who is more scared:  The mother who seemingly nursed the wrong baby for a few brief moments, whose sense of safety and trust was instantly demolished; or the hospital folks, who now must bear the scrutiny of their community, the media, and likely a few lawyers.

It would be easy for me to make snarky comments about the whole thing. I’m a homebirth midwife, and I can assure you that babies are never handed to the wrong mothers in my practice. It’s like a made-to-order, free-airtime commercial for me, broadcast across northern Minnesota. You never fall in love, or nurse, or go home with the wrong baby when you give birth in your own living room! (I will admit, however, that identical twin boys had me confused for a few hours one night in 2009. When their own mother and father made the same mistake a week later, I felt much better.)

While I am sympathetic to the families and nurse involved in this innocent mistake, I am far more concerned with the big picture implications. Why are mothers and babies separated at all?

If rooming-in were public policy, that sweet baby would never have been misplaced. If our maternal-child health factory would heed its own evidence -heavy data, hospitalized mothers would have little opportunity to lose track of their newborns.

Why are we warehousing brand new babies in another room, down the hall, in a big piece of Tupperware medievally called an Isolette, tended to by complete strangers?

Two decades of solid research tell us that moms and babies should not be separated except under extreme circumstances. It is more than an insensitive interruption; it is unethical, and even dangerous.

We know too much for this to be happening. We’ve known for decades now. Mamas and babies are biologically, emotionally, psychologically, and hormonally intertwined in the hours and days after birth, in ways that affect them both for years to come.

I won’t drag out the studies. Animal studies, human studies, so many studies that research ethics require that the studies not be repeated. The evidence is such that mother-baby separation is an academic non-starter; the damage is too great.

As bonding researchers Klaus and Kennell, the beloved scientists who championed the rise of modern doulas , say: “For each species there seems to be a specific length of separation that can be endured. If separation extends beyond this sensitive period, the effects on mothering behavior are often drastic and irreversible.”

So many routine hospital events put distance between moms and newborns. Procedures, exams, and routines—ostensibly designed to reduce risk—interfere with basic human biology.  There is little value in facilitating normal physiological birth, and by extension, nurturing optimal post partum care.

Here in Minnesota, we have a mere two Baby-Friendly hospitals.  That’s a dismal statistic. Where I live, mothers who undergo cesarean section are routinely separated from their new babies—mom to the surgical recovery floor, babies to the newborn nursery—during the most important first hours. The loss of that precious time is bad enough. Not one more minute should be compromised.  When a baby needs surgery, or specialized intensive care, separation is obviously required. But even these scenarios can be modified to maximize mom and baby contact. Hospitals, doctors, nurses, administrators—everybody who has any ability to influence this dynamic—should be moving mountains to make sure mom and baby are velcroed to each other like chickens on grasshoppers.

I’m frankly surprised anyone is surprised by this news story. This nurse’s mistake was unintentional and brief, and these things are inevitably going to happen.

The real story is the institutionalized separation and isolation of our newborns, be it enforced or encouraged, by design or indifference. That’s what’s terrifying and so very wrong.

I’ll be talking to the reporter and all of northern Minnesota about the Mother Friendly Hospital Initiative. That’s the good news. There is a model for good care out there…where we keep mothers and babies safe, healthy, and in each other’s arms. Where cuddling, tasting, smelling, and soothing ARE the rules and procedures.

Jana Studelska

About Jana Studelska

Jana Studelska CPM/LM, is a licensed midwife practicing in northern Minnesota and Wisconsin. She has been working with babies and mothers since 1998–as a La Leche leader, a certified doula, a childbirth educator, a regional birth network board member, and finally as a credentialed midwife. She is an author and writer, and has won several national awards for her work. Currently, she is the MANA Region 4 Representative for the Midwives Alliance, representing the upper midwest. She lives in Duluth, MN, with her husband, teen-aged boys, and a herd of dogs.