By US New and World Report Columnist, Stacy Cervenka with Commentary by Christie del Castillo-Hegyi, MD
Several weeks ago, as I was perusing Facebook, I came across an article on the Fed Is Best Foundation’s page that felt like a punch in the stomach. According to new medical research, the number of incidents where exhausted new mothers drop their babies and the incidence of newborn head injuries had gone up substantially in hospitals that no longer offer newborn nurseries, but instead require mothers to “room-in” with their babies. It further angered me to read that most of these head injuries took place while a mother was breastfeeding.
I was so upset by this article that I couldn’t sleep that night, because all I could think was, “That could have been Leo. Why, why, why was I ever put in such a dangerous and inhumane situation that this could have happened?”
For many reasons, I have only shared this story with close friends and family, but here goes:
My pregnancy with our first child, Leo, was very difficult due to hyperemesis graviderum (HG). I had to take a medical leave of absence from my job and was confined to bed most days. I made several trips a week to urgent care to get IVs, as I couldn’t even hold down water. I lost a lot of weight and was very weak and exhausted. When my water finally broke, I hadn’t slept comfortably in probably six months. I had gotten almost no sleep the night before, as I was crouched in my shower vomiting and dry heaving (as usual). The labor and delivery itself was uneventful, but it was another 28 hours with no sleep or real rest. Our son Leo was born six weeks premature and had some minor issues regulating his body temperature and with his bilirubin.
After Leo was born, per the policy at UC Davis Medical Center, he was expected to “room-in” with us. When I was pregnant, this sounded lovely. Who wouldn’t want all the bonding time possible with their precious new baby? However, the night after Leo’s birth, I was exhausted, weak, and in so much pain, I could barely function. To add to this challenge, my husband and I both happen to be blind. There are thousands of blind parents across the United States who successfully care for their children each day, but being blind does often require us to concentrate more fully on what we’re doing. Doing things nonvisually, especially when you’re doing them for the first time, can require a little more physical and cognitive energy. However, I was just so physically exhausted and emotionally fried. All night long, the nurses kept getting me up to nurse and pump. I was so clumsy with exhaustion. I kept waiting for the point where they were going to insist that I get some sleep and recuperate, but that never came. It became clear to me that the only help the nurses were going to give us was to make sure that I was breastfeeding. When I wasn’t breastfeeding, the lactation consultants wanted the baby to sleep with me, so we could get lots of skin-to-skin. This only ensured that I continued to get no sleep, because I just couldn’t get physically comfortable sleeping with the baby in the hospital bed and I was anxious about crushing him or pushing him off the bed somehow. (This concern may have been unfounded, but the fact was, I wasn’t physically comfortable sleeping with him; my husband and I had never wanted to co-sleep; and I just wanted to get some real rest.)
Because my son was born slightly premature, we spent 4 nights in the hospital with him. About 48 hours after his birth, my husband ran home to get some more clothes for us. I was alone in our room with the baby. While I was breastfeeding him, I fell asleep. A doctor woke me up some time later. The door to my room was wide open. I was sitting up in bed, with my hospital gown completely unbuttoned and my breasts just hanging out with Leo asleep across my lap. I was so freaked out. It was only good luck that he hadn’t fallen off the bed head first. I had fallen asleep sometime in the seconds between unbuttoning my hospital gown and putting Leo to my breast.
I was so upset that I finally broke down crying in front of the doctor. “I’m so tired. This is so hard,” was all I could say.
The doctor, who was a young intern or resident, had the following compassionate response: “What did you expect? Being a parent is hard,” he said.
Even at that time, before I had had time to fully process his comment, I thought, “Wow; thank you for that kind, professional and empathetic response. Is that what they taught you to say at medical school? Here I am in obvious psychological distress and that’s the help you give me?”
As the days wore on, it became abundantly clear that most of the staff didn’t care how I was doing physically or psychologically, as long as our breastfeeding was progressing nicely. My husband was as exhausted as I was and Leo had arrived 6 weeks early, so my mother had not been able to fly from Florida to California right after the birth as planned. You would have to know me to know how completely out of character this was for me to do, but as I was on the phone talking to my mom, I started crying and begging her to fly out to Sacramento right away. “I need somebody here who cares about ME!” Continue reading