parents

"How could I not know I was breastfeeding the wrong baby?"

I remember how instantly connected I felt with my son the day he was born. I was meeting him for the first time and yet, he was so familiar to me.

This is my son. My child. My creation.

During those first few hours, I felt blissfully exhausted and completely shocked by the experience of giving birth for the first time and being a novice mum. I completely trusted the hospital staff to care for me and my baby. I did everything they said. I questioned nothing.

If they had handed a small, dark-haired baby boy to me for feeding I probably would have given him a quick kiss on the head before painstakingly attempting to ‘latch him on’ for one of the first of many breastfeeds. I would have been particularly vulnerable at 2am and 5am, when babies like to feed.

It could have taken me a few beats to realise something was amiss.

Seven babies have been breastfed by the wrong mums in NSW public hospitals over the past five years, due to mistakes made by staff. The NSW Government has told the Daily Telegraph there are probably more incidents, but they are included in this figure as they don’t have records for private hospitals. The mistakes are being blamed on lack of hospital funding and a subsequent lack of midwives. Heath Minister Jillian Skinner is calling for calm, pointing out incidents like this are extremely rare.

But that’s not the point. It’s the possibility of something going wrong that is the worst part in this entire story. It’s that mistakes like this happened at all.

One would be too many.

I completely trusted the hospital staff to care for me and my baby. I did everything they said. I questioned nothing.

There is procedure to follow in NSW public hospitals when a mistake like this occurs.

The mother who breastfed the wrong baby is informed of the mistake and left to think, “How could I have not noticed I was breastfeeding the wrong baby?”

Then there’s the new mum, patiently waiting to feed her child, only to be told her baby has accidentally been fed by another mother.

It would be an incredibly painful experience regardless of which side of it you were on.

Mums and newborns are so vulnerable in those first few minutes, hours and days. Sure, we feel instantly bonded to our beautiful babies – but we are also consumed by doubt and trepidation. We expect that everyone from family and friends, to medical staff, are there to promote the process of bonding with our baby.

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To find out something has been done that severely interrupts that process is incredibly disturbing.

Imagine being the mum who has breastfed the wrong baby, told of the mistake and now has no milk left for their actual child.

Or the mum whose milk has come in and is feeling that expectant pressure in her breasts ahead of breastfeeding, only to be told the job has already been done by another mum?

And in between it all, there’s the hungry baby, waiting to be fed except there is no breast milk left for them. It’s all gone to another child.

It’s just too sad to contemplate.

Mums and newborns are so vulnerable in those first few minutes, hours and days.

An incident like this has the potential to completely destroy a mother’s chances of successfully establishing breastfeeding. It’s hard enough, without the guilt of having breastfed someone else’s child or the awful thought of your child suckling on someone else’s breast.

It would feel as though you had let your baby down, even though it wasn’t your fault at all.

There’s nothing minor about these mistakes, and the rarity of them is of little comfort to pregnant women preparing to give birth in public hospitals in NSW, particularly because those hospitals involved are yet to be named.

I struggle to understand how these mistakes were made. My babies were given identification wrist bands almost immediately before being handed to me and then placed in a crib, which also had a copy of their identification on it.

There must be a severe shortage of midwives for incidents like these to occur, for babies to be mixed up. Even though the errors were later identified, the very possibility of them opens up a whole plethora of nightmarish possibilities in the new-mum-brain from, “What if I have taken the wrong baby home?” to, “What if my baby received a procedure they didn’t need?”

Mums are often given the option of keeping their baby by their bedside or having them spend time in the hospital nursery so they can get some sleep.

Many mums, I imagine, will now choose to keep their newborns closer.