A newborn baby has suffocated to death under his mother, who fell asleep while breastfeeding in a hospital in Rome. The exhausted mother had continually begged for her baby to be taken to the newborn nursery so that she could sleep. The tragic case of baby Carlo has caused an outcry in Italy and has been widely reported in the press there.
The story has also been picked up by some UK newspapers. However, reporting has failed to point out that there are no newborn nurseries at all in the NHS and that similar tragedies have happened in the UK.
In 2018, Louie Bradley choked to death when his exhausted mother fell asleep while breastfeeding him in hospital in Bolton, having been advised by midwives to feed lying side-by-side in a hospital bed. Julia Geis-Clements’ daughter Cerys suffered brain damage as a result of hypoxia during her first breastfeed. Three-day-old Leon died when his mother fell asleep breastfeeding him. He hadn’t fed in the hospital twice that morning but was discharged anyway. He was dehydrated. The healthcare staff blamed his distraught mother, Michelle Jerrison, for falling asleep.
Marie Downey and her son, Darragh died when she fell out of a hospital bed while breastfeeding in Cork, Ireland. In Australia, Monica Thompson was given narcotic painkillers and sleep aids after her c-section and then given her newborn to breastfeed. She awoke an hour later discover her baby, Jacob, was dead next to her.
These are the cases that made the press (and there are more). The scientific literature contains numerous case examples. Researchers in Japan found an association between celebral palsy as a result of sudden unexpected postnatal collapse during early skin-to-skin contact, which aims to facilitate breastfeeding. Joel Bass and colleagues in the US highlight how so-called Baby Friendly practices might inadvertently contribute to sudden unexpected postnatal collapse during skin-to-skin contact.
The Healthcare Special Investigation Branch (HSIB) investigated a small number of babies who had suffered postnatal collapse during skin-to-skin. Unfortunately, they chose to appease UNICEF Baby Friendly UK, misrepresenting the findings of a Cochrane review, implying sound evidence for many fanciful benefits of skin-to-skin when Cochrane found the opposite.
Now, we could get all clever and scientific here, but really there is no need for anything other than a good dose of common-sense. Let’s break it down: Women who have just had a baby are usually exhausted, in pain and may require strong pain relief. They also need sleep, rest and recovery. This is because they are human beings and all human beings need sleep, rest and recovery, especially after a physical ordeal like birth . Exhausted people have a tendency to fall asleep when not intending to. People who are in pain, spaced-out on medication or who cannot stay alert are not able to hold a newborn baby safely. There’s no maternal superpower that makes mothers any different here.
Healthcare professionals seem to lack this basic understanding. They have decided that in order to promote breastfeeding, newborn nurseries must be removed and all women, no matter how exhausted, in pain or spaced-out must immediately assume 24-7 care of their newborn. This is as ridiculous as it is reckless.
We make a radical proposal: Start treating women who have just had babies as patients in a hospital who require rest, recovery and healthcare and do not expect them to provide 24-7 care for their tiny newborn. Bring back newborn nurseries for mothers to use as much or as little as they wish or feel the need to. Ensure maternity staff realise they are responsible for providing nursing care to women who have just had babies. And ensure that women’s partners can be with them and their babies and share in those early hours and days with their newborn (but do not expect them to play nurse and do the job of maternity staff).
We have to recognise that mothers are not superheroes and breastfeeding is not magic. Basic, ordinary human needs still apply. If our healthcare services did the decent thing and met those needs and acknowledged the importance of postnatal women getting decent sleep, we would all have an easier time after our babies are born. More importantly, some families would be spared the devastating loss of a precious baby and could go on to enjoy their child, celebrate birthdays, see them go to school and be a family.
This blog was adapted from several threads we posted on Twitter.