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The Breastfeeding Switcheroo: Why Do People Freak Out?

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Kate Tuttle: Last week, the Washington Post reported on a Virginia woman who had recently come forward with her tale of postpartum woe. Back in January of 2010, when Suzanne Libby's son, Spencer, was a newborn, a nurse in the Virginia Hospital Center mistakenly delivered the baby to another new mother, who breastfed him.

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Upsetting, right? I mean, naturally we all want our babies to be safe, and we want to be the ones to feed them -- especially when they're brand new. That said, no harm, no foul. The baby boy, now 8 months old, is perfectly healthy. And although it's technically possible for diseases such as HIV and hepatitis to be transmitted via breast milk, the risk of that happening in a single nursing episode is infinitesimally low.

So why, then, does Libby describe the situation as "the worst moment of my entire life"? She goes on to tell the Post that "to find that another mother breastfed him, without my knowledge, without my consent, was horrid .... He was exposed to someone else's body fluid."

According to the hospital, the nurse's aide responsible for the error has been fired, but that doesn't mean the family is satisfied. They are "looking into legal options," says the Post article.

This is where I have a hard time. The really terrifying part of the story is that the various systems in place to properly indentify a child evidently failed. The worst possible outcome of such a failure, it seems to me, would have been a complete switcheroo of babies, as happened to two families in Virginia. But that didn't happen in this case, nor in a similar case from 2009 that took place in New Hampshire, nor in the case of an Illinois woman who went public after she mistakenly nursed another couple's child.

What happened was that, for some tiny amount of time, another mother lovingly nursed a baby not her own. And then the baby was brought back to its proper mother, and life went on. And yet, in nearly all of these cases, lawsuits followed. Why is it that the idea of another woman breastfeeding one's own baby is the event that tips the scales, that turns a medical mistake into something "horrid," indecent, despicable?

As we celebrate World Breastfeeding Week, it's a question to ponder. We've seen centuries of wet-nursing (which may be making a comeback), millennia of women occasionally pinch-hitting for a friend or sister and even the rise of milk banking -- so what is it that makes this one-time, accidental "other-mothering" so terrifying?


next: Should Kids With Lice Be Allowed to Go to School?
17 comments so far | Post a comment now
Anonymous August 2, 2010, 11:45 AM

I would be upset if someone else breastfed my child, although a lawsuit seems extreme. Germs can be passed on in breastmilk and I wouldn’t want a stranger to breastfeed my child.

Tracy August 2, 2010, 11:45 AM

I wonder if the lawsuits would still have come had the babies been accidentally formula fed in the hospital? “Horid” seems a little extreme, especially since the baby will likely be receiving not only non-mother milk, but non-human milk at some point.

Mo August 2, 2010, 1:08 PM

I would be upset that I wasn’t the FIRST to feed my child…..but in the olden days children where fed by whichever breast was available. We were so much more community oriented then. As long as it was proven that this loving woman did not pass anything to said child there should be no problem……just mental discomfort. BTW….we drink milk from a cow and we are human so go figure….which is more gross(I love 2% myself)

Kristen August 2, 2010, 2:48 PM

You know this is a slap in the face to the women who breastfed dead mothers babies to save their lives. I understand her being upset but once the tests were back and the baby was in the clear just let it go and realize it was a human mistake. I do believe the hospital needs to step up and look at it’s safety system but to sue it just ridiculous. This women needs a wake up call, try visiting a third world country and realize how lucky you are. Good grief!

Anonymous August 2, 2010, 4:24 PM

I would be fine if someone breastfed my child as long as no diseases were transferred. Likewise, I would have been equally fine to breastfeed someone elses child if they couldn’t. Honestly, what is the big freaking deal. People have so many issues. Get over it and move on mom.

MartiniMama August 2, 2010, 5:49 PM

I think the reason that there are lawsuits is because we live in a sue-happy society. No one wants to accept that mistakes happen, no matter how many checks and balances have been put in place to prevent them.

I would be freaked out if this happened to me, too, but once all the tests were back and my child was proven to be ok, I would let it go at an apology from the hospital. Suing is just way out of line, IMO.

Anon August 2, 2010, 6:00 PM

She needs to get over it!

Nikki August 2, 2010, 7:08 PM

I think it all boils down to what could have happened? The mother that breastfed a child that wasn’t her own could have been an addict, had a communicable disease, etc. And even though the chances of a child being at risk is very small, it is still a risk that did not have to be taken. That child could have been that 0.01 percent that turned out to be the negative statistic and contracted something harmful.

Ashley August 2, 2010, 9:06 PM

I would be highly upset if this happened to my baby. It would feel as though I was violated, my baby was violated. The woman was not consented about the baby feeding from someone else.

Okay I don’t want to go extreme but this is the best comparison I can think of. I think the violation would feel similar to the violation of being rape. I am NOT saying this is the same as rape by any means other than the emotional aspect of it.

kymommy August 3, 2010, 7:07 AM

I would be more freaked out at the fact that they took MY baby to another mother! It wouldn’t bother me at all that another woman fed my baby, especially since she was under the impression that it was HER baby! Thank God it was just for a feeding and the baby wasn’t DISCHARGED to the wrong mother.

K8 August 3, 2010, 8:30 AM

Why was the baby ever out of the mother’s (or father’s) sight? Why was the baby ever taken away? My child was either with me or my husband for the entire 48hours we were in the hospital.

Stacie August 3, 2010, 9:31 AM

I would have been upset, too. I’m so looking forward to those first feedings! But nothing bad happened, and you shouldn’t sue over “what might have happened.” And, as K8 says, I hope to have my baby with me the whole time I’m in the hospital (but maybe, for some reason, there was a need for the baby to be in the nursery?). Even though she/he is kicking me in the ribs a bunch today, I still don’t what the baby out of my sight. :)

Erica August 3, 2010, 10:44 AM

Violated? The mom in the article and the mom’s in some of these comments need to get over it and grow up.

Erica August 3, 2010, 10:51 AM

I can’t believe the first thing that came to this woman’s mind was how “gross” it was, as if the other woman had cooties or something. But she didn’t even care for the fact that the baby was even fed at all.

Nicole August 3, 2010, 10:28 PM

I don’t see a problem with it at all. My dad was nursed by a nurse maid (or wet nurse, or whatever you want to call it). That was the way things were done. I don’t see it as any different.

M&N's MOM August 7, 2010, 8:22 AM

My daughter was hospitalized from age 5 to 8 weeks with RSV. I pumped the whole time and stored my milk in a public fridge/freezer for breastmilk. There was another baby on the floor with a similar name and one night the nurse mistakenly brought a bottle of her mother’s milk. I didn’t pay attention. It was dark. I fed her the bottle. Later I looked at the label and realized what happened. The next day the Lactation Consultant told us to double check and sign off when the nurses brought bottles. It was probably a bigger problem for the other baby who was now lacking a bottle of milk. My daughter is 7 months old and fine. It was an innocent mistake. We moved on.

thomas sabo charms December 20, 2010, 4:39 PM

You raise many queries in my thoughts; you wrote an excellent article, but this articlee is also thought provoking, and I am going to need to ponder it a bit more; I will be back soon.


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