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I'm All for Maternity Wards Moving Away From Nurseries

It never crossed my mind that choosing not to send my babies to the hospital nursery was anything other than the norm. I had so little experience before I had my first baby, I wasn't even sure what the nursery's purpose was.

The idea that a mother who had just given birth would want to send her baby away to be cared for by a nurse felt as antiquated to me as the horror stories of "twilight sleep" deliveries, where the mother didn't even remember her baby being born and the effects of such a delivery necessitated the use of the nursery. Surely the nursery was as outdated as that method of childbirth, something left over from a bygone era when women were treated like children who didn't know what was best for them or their baby, right? Shouldn't rooming-in be the rule, rather than the exception?

Turns out, a lot of people disagree with me. When the Boston Globe reported last week that maternity wards in Massachusetts and other states are moving away from the use of nurseries and encouraging rooming-in with babies as part of a "Baby-Friendly'' initiative launched by the World Health Organization and the United Nations Children's Fund to encourage breastfeeding, social media exploded with comments about the necessity of nurseries. I shared the article on my Facebook wall, prefacing it with how I seem to be in the minority in thinking nurseries are outdated, and had several comments divided over the topic. While I still don't understand why (or how) sending my baby to the nursery would have been beneficial, there is no doubt that a lot of women feel like something important is being taken away from them.

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For me, the decision was clear. I was 42 years old when my first son was born and I had never so much as held a newborn or changed a diaper in my life. My husband had been deployed to the Middle East during my last trimester and was able to come home for two weeks of baby leave before deploying again for five months. I was scheduled for an induction at 6 a.m. two days after he came home, but after 10 or so hours of Pitocin-induced contractions, I was only 1 centimeter dilated. I was emotionally and physically wrung out. After some discussion, I agreed to a Cesarean section and was quickly wheeled to the operating room where my son was born at 6:32 p.m.

I resented like hell the suggestion that I should hand my baby over to them for any reason.

I saw him for just a few seconds after his birth before he was whisked away to the NICU for observation because he'd swallowed meconium during the delivery. I still had to be stitched and stapled back together, then taken to recovery where I was given fluids and warm blankets to combat the post-surgery shock. Hours passed and I didn't see my baby until after 11 p.m. that night. I was an emotional wreck, waiting to hold my baby. The pain was minimal as I was still on intravenous pain meds, but the stress of the entire day had me near tears until I could finally hold my son.

And then I did. While everything didn't seem perfect, it felt so much better. The pain meds eventually wore off and my attempts at breastfeeding were uncomfortable and unproductive, but my baby was with me, within arm's reach, and that was all I wanted.

Some time the next day, when my husband had gone off to find food, a nurse came in to check on me and help with the baby. She changed him and swaddled him while I watched from the bed, feeling a pang of protectiveness that caught me off guard. Then she said the words that made my heart drop, "Why don't I take him to the nursery so you can take a nap?"

I'm sure I looked like I needed a nap. I felt shell-shocked and like I'd been torn apart and put back together with a staple gun. But I remember how I felt when she suggested taking my baby—my baby—away. I said, "No, I want him with me." When she hesitated, I said (louder than I should have), "Give me my baby." She did and I was happy. And for the remainder of my three-day stay in the hospital, he stayed with me with the exception of a few tests they needed to run. I felt like I was coming out of my skin every time he left my sight.

I went through the same experience with my second son, though the C-section was scheduled, I never even attempted to breastfeed and my husband wasn't on a deployment pre- and post-birth. He also wasn't at the hospital around the clock with us like he had been with our older son, which meant I had to do more on my own. But I had almost two years' worth of experience at that point, and I made it clear I wanted my baby to room-in with me.

The nurses suggested I should "get some rest" while I could before returning home with a newborn and a toddler. I know it was, at least in part, the hormonal rollercoaster I was on, but I resented like hell the suggestion that I should hand my baby over to them for any reason.

To me, the concept of a maternity ward nursery feels both outdated and privileged. Why let medical staff watch my baby for non-medical reasons while I take a nap?

The truth was, I felt more relaxed with my baby in the room than any time they took him away from me. Sleeping, or even resting, was difficult for me as I'd just had major surgery, and a hospital maternity floor isn't the quietest place in the world, even at night. Newborns weren't a huge disruption; I felt more disrupted by nurses talking, patients being wheeled down the hall and having a stream of people in my room at all hours to take my vitals, check on the baby, bring food or clean the room. Compound that by the fact that I'm a chronic insomniac who has never slept well (or longer than five hours straight, unless I was sick), and it was an easy choice to room-in with my babies.

To me, the concept of a maternity ward nursery feels both outdated and privileged. Why let medical staff watch my baby for non-medical reasons while I take a nap? Most newborns sleep a lot and mine were no exception—so it wasn't as if they were particularly high-maintenance when they were awake, even if they did wake up every three to four hours for a few minutes. I can imagine single moms (or women whose spouses are deployed during the birth—which mine nearly was) or a mom (or baby) with extenuating health issues might benefit from the nursery option, and they should be given the option.

But for most women I know, they not only had a spouse, but a steady stream of parents, siblings and friends available to hold, change and feed the baby if they wanted to rest. All I had was my husband and my best friend, and the three of us managed just fine; I didn't feel particularly exhausted when I went home (or no more exhausted than a woman who'd just had surgery). Plus, for my husband, those two weeks he was home were the only time he'd get to see his son for another five months, so rooming-in was as important to him as it was to me. So I'm missing the imperative need for sending a baby to the nursery in a typical situation and requiring the nursing staff to do what can be done in-room by mom or another family member.

I had recurring mental images of my infant screaming in a hospital bassinet, alone and uncared for in the nursery.

I've also seen Cesarean delivery mentioned as a reason for sending a baby to the nursery, but having had two C-sections (the first being particularly traumatic following a failed induction), I disagree. Other than medical complications for mother or baby, I think the nursery is unnecessary. I'm not claiming to be Supermom by a long shot, but I think the best thing for me was having my baby with me following such a rough physical experience.

Because of the surgeries, I didn't get to see either of my babies within an hour of their birth. I honestly wish there had been a way for them to be in the same room with me for the entire time we were in the hospital, from operating room to discharge. After carrying them in my body for nine months, I felt bereft without them—and yes, I was exhausted and recovering from surgery, but I didn't care. I wanted my babies with me. I had recurring mental images of my infant screaming in a hospital bassinet, alone and uncared for in the nursery. I know that wouldn't have been the reality but—for me—having them nearby, being able to stretch out my hand and place it on their chest, brought peace of mind. And that meant more to me than a nap.

And while the "Baby-Friendly" initiative is in large part intended to encourage breastfeeding, and I was only able to breastfeed for a total of eight weeks with my oldest son and not at all with my youngest son, I still think rooming-in was important for me and both of my babies. I got in those hours of bonding time that I otherwise wouldn't have if they'd been in the nursery. With my first son, rooming-in with him (and a C-section delivery meant three-day stays for me) allowed me to learn how to take care of a baby under the watchful eye of the nurses and with the help of my husband, who deployed again shortly after my son's birth, which left me with no help whatsoever. With my second son, I was an experienced mom but also had a 21-month-old toddler at home. So those three days in the hospital with my newborn were important one-on-one time with him that I knew I wouldn't have very often once I went home.

Just as importantly, what I gained by keeping them with me was confidence. I felt empowered in the hospital to make the decisions for my babies, to care for them with the safety net of experienced nurses to help me if I needed it. So I do believe the nursery option should be available, but only as a necessity and not as a personal choice.

In the Boston Globe article, Lori Pugsley, nurse director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Obstetrics Unit and Special Care Nurseries, said, "Ten years ago our nurseries were full. That was our culture. Changing culture is hard." It is hard to change a cultural perception, but if evidence suggests it's a good idea, why shouldn't we readjust our thinking—why shouldn't we try?

Photograph by: Kristina Wright

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