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  Home  > The First Year  > Myth: Hospital Nurseries Protect Infants from Infection

Myth: Hospital Nurseries Protect Infants from Infection

Fact: Removing baby from mother to nursery increases the likelihood of infection. When mother and baby are together she snuggles with him, kisses him, strokes him, covering his body with a film of bacteria that protects him from foreign germs.

While some hospitals today allow newborns to room-in with their mothers, others persist in routinely separating mother and infant for a period of time immediately following birth, then often only bringing them together for three or four periods during the day. The idea is to prevent newborn infections and to enable mother to rest. Mothers who receive a lot of drugs or anesthesia during birth do need time to recuperate before they can begin to care for their newborn, and time is also needed to let the primary effects of the drugs wear off the newborn. Most infants experience some form of respiratory depression when narcotics are used during labor and birth and need more careful monitoring. Even then, the infant can almost always be held in father's arms instead of being placed in a nursery. Given that drugs enter the baby in higher amounts and remain in the liver and brain, it is often weeks, even months, before all traces pass out of a baby's system.

For the greater majority of newborns who do not need intensive care, procedures that are sometimes deemed necessary to be done in the nursery, can as readily be done wherever mother and baby are comfortable - by the bedside, on the sofa - with the whole family participating. Heart rate, lung sounds, muscle tone reflexes and skin color can all be assessed while baby is lying on mother's body or in her arms. Washing the baby is often not necessary, especially after a water-birth. Or, she can be gently immersed in a basin filled with warm water, approximating the conditions of the womb. In healthy newborns with good respiratory function, these procedures can be delayed for, at the very least, an hour. In many home births, as long as the baby looks whole and healthy--as is usually so - delay these procedures for days.

The physical passage of the baby from inter-uterine to extra-uterine life means loss on may levels. Many women enjoy being pregnant, feeling their babies inside, and exulting in their increased self-awareness and sensitivity. A lot of attention is focused on the woman when she is pregnant. As soon as the baby is born, everything and everyone is focused around the baby's needs. Many women also feel a sense of loss when the actual birth does not match their expectations. The feelings at the time of birth are numerous--and it is sometimes hard for a mother to sort out just what is going on--these symptoms are directly related to her grief over the loss, real or imagined. The easiest way to ease her emptiness is immediate and continuing contact with her baby. - Barbara Harper

The neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), where stress and pain are virtually inevitable elements of the environment, is a particularly dangerous place for babies. A dramatic example is the report of a Seattle pediatrician's experience treating a desperately ill baby in his hospital's NICU. Hooked up to a battery of life-support machines, the baby was bombarded by the lights and jarring sounds typical of any NICU. The child was turning blue. Determining that the infant was going to die anyway, the doctor took him off life support, shut off all the machines, turned off the lights, and lifting the baby from the crib, rocked him gently in his arms. Within minutes the baby turned pink and made a complete recovery.

This is not to advocate banishing the NICU, but a call to create NICUs with a full awareness of the sense and sensibility of the newborn: Minimize lighting, noise, and bloodtaking; and offer calm, soothing touch, and whenever possible, the mother's body. And, when mother can't hold her infant, father can do just fine.


Suzanne Arms, The Immaculate Deception II: Myth, Magic and Birth,
Barbara Harper, Gentle Birth Choices
Thomas R. Verny MD, Preparenting: Nurturing Your Baby from Conception

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