Parenting • Jan 27, 2012

Ivory Towers and Little Lies: A Plea for the Sleeping Baby

If you read my blogs, you know I usually write about upbeat topics. I love being a mom. I think it is truly the hardest job anyone can ever do. And I find it really fun writing  about parenting and hopefully being a “cheerleader” to other parents.

 My post today is different.

 For years before I became a mom, I was a doctor. One winter when I was in private practice, my office was overflowing with sick kids when I received a call to run to the ER. A baby had just arrived via ambulance with no heart rate and he wasn’t breathing. I ran across the courtyard and into ER trauma room 1, to find a very blue little baby who was not moving. As I had been taught and done many times, I went to work placing a tube to breath for him. The nurses were already working their magic with IVs so we could give medicines to restart his heart; someone was compressing his chest to keep the baby alive while we worked. For over 40 minutes, I gave directions and we all worked. Still, the baby was blue, lifeless and cold. Everyone did an amazing job, but a baby just cannot survive for hours without oxygen or a heartbeat.

The child had been sleeping in bed with his parents.

 Now the hardest part of my job began as I walked out to tell this little one’s mom and dad their baby was dead. As a doctor, there are things I’ve seen and sounds I’ve heard that I am so thankful few others will ever have to experience.

 The heart-wrenching, high pitched cry of a mother, who has just learned her baby is dead, is a nightmarish sound that you can never erase from your memory. Ever.

 Blue baby, mother’s scream followed by the sight of blood as the mother takes a pocket knife from her key chain and cuts her wrist in front of me.

 Those sounds still echo in my mind – my heart – with such clarity it could have happened moments ago, not years.

 I left the ER and returned to my overflowing office with kids and new moms and dads.  Returned to talk about baby safety:  hand-washing, car seats and placing babies on their backs to sleep in their own bed without blankets. I hope that when I teach it, parents understand it comes from my heart – reflecting my sincere hope that their children stay safe, and that they never have to experience some of the images of my nightmares.

 In the last couple weeks, we have seen an increase in the number of dead babies in the ER at St. Louis Children’s. There seems to be a resurgence of parents who are placing babies to bed on their bellies or who take them into their own beds. Perhaps, in part, because as parents, we are reading more and more on the internet.

 I recently read a post by an eloquent mom who has newborn twins. The day on which she reflected was a tough one for her. She was exhausted and her one twin, a high needs baby, was taking her to her emotional limit. As a mom of triplets, I could relate. I’ve been in that emotional place many times. I felt for her. I identified with her. I went on to read how she decided to place her baby on its belly to sleep and how the baby immediately settled and slept and she was then able to emotionally recover. The blog continues with her telling her readers how she lies to her pediatrician about putting the baby to bed on his belly. How the “smug” experts in Ivory Towers don’t understand and her baby was fine.

 As I read, I understood her emotions. I understood why she made that choice.

 But, blue, dead babies, the heart-breaking scream of a mother…she hasn’t experienced them.

 I understood just as I understand why many parents make choices that result in dead or hurt children. They aren’t stupid or careless any more than we, the doctor moms, are smug or uncaring. But, I also wondered why she didn’t feel her pediatrician would understand if she tried to talk honestly about it. Why did she feel her pediatrician would tell her to do something that had no outcome other than to make her life harder?

 Blue baby, screaming, heart-broken mom. I wondered, “Do  parents view their pediatrician’s advice as just a stern lecture, and  not the loving advice of a doctor who hopes to save them from unimaginable grief?”

 I then read the responses to her blog, and my question was answered. Each mom that responded said that she, too, puts her baby to bed on its stomach, that she also lies to her pediatrician, that she knows the pediatrician is smug and callus and uncaring too.

 As I read post after post after post, a knot formed in my stomach. Because, I know that my wish to never have to tell a mom her baby is dead, suffocated, gone forever, probably isn’t going to come true.

 As pediatricians, we want to teach parents everything they need to be great parents and part of that is how to keep their children safe. The advice changes as the children grow and change. We are careful to pick only the most important things and we try to present it in a way that is positive and encouraging. We teach it passionately, over and over.  And it’s more than advice we learn in our “ivory towers.” We have seen with our own eyes what can happen.

 I have had to tell parents their child was dead many times in my career. Some of those deaths were preventable, babies and children who won’t get to grow up and parents who will never be the same.

 I hope you will listen to the safety advice of your child’s pediatrician; that you will have a conversation if you think the advice doesn’t make sense. Blue, lifeless babies. The heart-wrenching sounds of a mother’s scream. With all my heart, I pray you never have to experience these images.