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Hospital-Based Births: What’s Wrong with This Picture?

Nurse in hospital nursery holding newborn infant.

It was over three decades ago, but I can still see the mother standing in the nursery doorway around 1:30 am. Wisps of blonde hair stuck to her sweaty face and neck. Large, round, moist splotches on her nightgown clung to her breasts. Milk dripped onto her slippers. She practically hissed at me, “Please, could I have my baby?”

There I was. Holding and feeding her baby from a bottle.

Standing in that doorway, that woman’s steely gaze, leaking milk and tone of voice made me question myself, the hospital, and much more.

What’s wrong with this picture?

I was stunned by her presence. During the 11 pm change-of-shift report, the charge nurse had described the mother as “too tired” to feed her baby. But her willingness to take the long walk down the hall (after her cesarean surgery) contradicted that report.

Suddenly, I realized that feeding is not “feeding” per se. Rather, feeding is the first and perhaps most enduring function of the mothering role.

Then, as now, I reflect on a mother’s quote in Diony Young’s book, Changing Childbirth: “On the day I came home I took my little bundle to bed with me; I felt in an odd way that for the first time she was definitely mine and not the hospital’s baby.”

That quote and the look on the blonde mother’s sweaty face made me recognize that something is seriously wrong with hospital-based births.

Since that night, hospitals have made changes.

Maybe you have the good fortune to live in an area where mothers and babies have 24-hour rooming in.

Maybe your hospital is a breastfeeding utopia.

But, in other places, the hospital units are still little more than a police state. Babies go here, mothers go there, with plenty of “rules” about what they are “allowed” to do.  

One of the problems, too, is that we continue to see breastfeeding through the lens of “nutrition.” No doubt, breastfeeding is about food. But it’s about much more than food.

Over the past few decades, we’ve done a terrific job of talking about the “benefits of breastfeeding.” But what we’ve really been selling is the wonders of human milk.

Yet, time after time, I hear both parents and providers talk about good “nutrition” with little understanding that the immunoprotective components of human milk are part of a different conversation.

The discussion about bonding, communication, interaction, and a symbiotic relationship are … well, nowhere.

Here’s what I learned that night:

  1. Breastfeeding is the biological norm. It may not be the social norm, but most certainly, it is the biological norm for humans and for every other mammal on earth.
  2. Some nurses are just ignorant. I was one of them. When I started working in maternal-child health, I didn’t know anything about breastfeeding. I wasn’t opposed to breastfeeding. I just plain didn’t know anything about it.
  3. Ignorant nurses can learn from their clients or their colleagues. In truth, I didn’t learn a thing from my colleagues. From the beginning, I was always the hospital’s resident expert on breastfeeding, which is scary because the only thing I knew was where the right breast and the left breast were located.
  4. What you hear from others on the healthcare team may or may not represent what the patient wants or needs.
  5. There’s always hope. The breastfeeding agnostics can be converted into advocates. The breastfeeding couplets can have a positive experience despite the healthcare team. In at least in some situations, having just one advocate can make all the difference in the world.

I KNOW you have something to add here! Tell me in the comments!

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1 Comment

  1. Cindy

    Marie, this is about how I started 26 years ago when I was a Well Baby Nursery Nurse. We kept those infants swaddled, we sent them out for mother’s to breast feed then in 30-60 min we went and gathered the infant and brought them back to the nursery so the mother’s could rest/sleep. We usually changed the diaper prior to taking them out every 3 hours, but after we swaddled them and rolled them back out to mom they were usually back to sleep. We often encouraged the Mother to allow us to give a bottle (formula) if the infant got hungry before the next feeding. Rarely did I have a Mother request for the infant to be brought back out to breastfeed. It’s no wonder we are fighting such an uphill battle to get breastfeeding, skin to skin, rooming in to be the natural normal. However, Mothers are so much more informed and outspoken about what they desire, which is wonderful. Their parents (infant’s grandparents) are more likely an issue because they gave birth and experienced all the formula pushing, rules and hands off approach during their hospital experiences earlier.
    Love this topic, may I share your email with our hospital L&D/PP staff?
    Thank you Marie

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