Right baby, wrong mother. Or right mother, wrong baby

Nurses, apparently, at Abbott Northwestern hospital gave the wrong newborn baby to a mother yesterday, the Star Tribune reports, and the woman breast-fed the baby before someone figured it out.

“As far as we know, this has never happened before at Abbott,” Gloria O’Connell, a spokeswoman, tells the Strib, while insisting there will be consequences.

That leads to the obvious question (besides “how”): How often does this happen?

In fact, it’s not hard at all to find nearly identical stories from around the country and the cause is usually the same: Someone didn’t do what someone should’ve done.

No big deal, though, right? Just switch them back.

But it is more complicated than that, and the concern many parents have is that by breast-feeding the wrong baby, a person may transfer illnesses. The Washington Post identified the problem in a story two years ago, in which parents feared their child might contract HIV from the “wrong mother.”

The incidents also point to a larger problem of accurate patient identification — a major cause of health-care errors. That is a particular risk with newborns, and experts say sleep-deprived mothers are sometimes confused: It can be hard to recognize a swaddled infant brought by the nursing staff for feeding in the middle of the night.

For the past few months, the Libbys say, they have asked hospital officials to put in writing the verbal assurances they were given. They want a list of tests and results, including a toxicology screening, that were performed on the woman who breast-fed their baby. The hospital has not provided them.

  • No, the reality is, there is a very, very little chance on any harm coming from having the wrong mom feed a baby. Any fears are overblown and are a direct result of a complete lack of public understanding of breastfeeding, the mechanics of breastfeeding, and what can actually be passed to a baby. There are no ACTUAL studies I can find on the risks to switched babies being fed by the wrong mother, but the NIH published a study earlier this year on the risks of moms intentionally feeding their babies milk from other moms. We tend to think of breastmilk of being the risky substance, but there are risks to a breastfed baby accidentally being fed formula, too.

  • BJ

    My kids are young enough (7 and 10) to remember the security and double checks that our wonderful hospital and my wife’s employer 🙂 went though when we had them. I’m guessing even the Union Rep will have a hard time defending the Nurse that had this fail.

  • Emily

    I just had a baby this summer. In the multiple classes I took before the birth of our son, we were told to bring post its and start labeling the room with instructions in preparation for the exhaustion that follows birth. Because we were not going with the “norm” for most hospital maternity procedures, we made sure post-its with instructions were all over the room, including a “no formula” post-it and a “do not remove our child from our room, ever!” I’m glad we did as the multiple rotating nurses and staff that would enter were hard to keep up to date with details. And many wanted to take our child to the nursery so that we could get more sleep. They didn’t really understand why we declined. Our child was in our sight the entire four day stay. I will commend our hospital however, everything was double checked and scanned on both me and my son when care was administered and logged. I really feel for the mother in this situation and I agree with vjacobsen… more education on breast feeding is needed for mothers, hospitals and the general public.

  • Lily

    Hospitals are understaffed with nurses– to save money. What happened was tragic, but best to look at the bigger picture than to totally blame the individual nurse.