They say that after forty-eight hours without sleep the human brain begins to slow down. Think of a computer burdened by a hundred different open browsers. After seventy-two hours, psychosis can set in. I for one have first-hand knowledge of this process, not because I was subjected to some covert military experiment, but simply because a year and a half ago, I gave birth to my son at a family birthing center that, like many facilities of its sort, adheres to a policy of “rooming in” for new mothers.
I first learned of this policy about a month before my due date, when my husband and I took a tour of the facility. The nurse showed us one of the post-delivery rooms, letting us marvel at just how un-hospital-like it seemed. And then, as we left the room, she gestured briskly at the hospital’s nursery: “But you and your babies hopefully won’t be seeing much of that. Our expectation is that babies will be sleeping beside their moms. The nursery is only used for babies experiencing medical complications.”
At the time, this sounded great. After waiting nine-plus months to meet the baby of my dreams, why would I possibly want to ship him off to a sterile, fluorescent-lit nursery where I wouldn’t be able to stare into his eyes or caress his little hands or cuddle him against my chest? Provided the guy was in good health, why would I not want him beside me every moment of those first few days? In other words, our hospital’s rooming-in policy seemed like little more than common sense:until, that is, I gave birth.
I know that labor isn’t easy for anyone, and having talked to plenty of other moms about their experiences, I feel pretty lucky – no serious complications, no c-section, no back-labor, no tearing or vacuum extractions or other horror scenarios. I went into labor a little after midnight and thirty-two hours later: presto.
At the time of my first contraction, I was in good health and good spirits but not exactly well rested after three months of trying to sleep with what my midwife referred to as itty-bitty bladder syndrome. My first night of contractions was manageable, but sleepless (was I really going to doze off knowing I was having my baby?). The second night was relatively painless thanks to my epidural, but still sleepless, as I experienced the not-uncommon side effect of shaking and shivering through most of the night. So by the time I gave birth, I’d gone forty-eight hours without a wink.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: enter husband/ partner/ impregnator. And indeed, my husband was a superhero during those first post-birth days and weeks. The problem we faced was that, despite all those much-craved burgers and bowls of guacamole I consumed throughout my third trimester, our little guy was born absolutely famished and really psyched about this whole nursing thing – as in, wanting to do it constantly.
And in addition to being famished, he was quite the moody newborn. Apparently, his thirty-two-hour entry into the world hadn’t tuckered him out one bit. Begin sleepless night numbers three and four.
Around my sixtieth waking hour, the flowery wallpaper and homey-style furniture of my birthing center suite began to blur into the interior of a garish funhouse. At some point during our last night in our nursery-less hospital, a nurse who I remember only as having the face of an angel took pity on me, scooped up the baby and walked him around the halls, somehow keeping him quiet, while I slept. Maybe she rubbed whiskey on his gums. Maybe she gave him eight ounces of Similac. I didn’t know and frankly, I didn’t care. I collapsed into a coma-like state for a couple of blessed hours before the sun rose and it was time for our happy family to get ready to go home.
“Yeah,” they’d shrug, “it’s a frustrating condition for parents.” Promoted by the midwife/ doula/ home-birth-movement community, as well as the World Health Organization, the practice of newborns rooming-in has been widely embraced. It’s a pretty straightforward philosophy: newborns should be within arms-reach of their mothers whenever possible. They argue that separation between mother and child during these first few days can disrupt bonding, impede nursing, and force hospitals to take extensive security and identification precautions for infants who are shuttled back and forth between nursery and post-delivery rooms.
As a result, most hospitals now offer parents the choice of having their baby room with them or go to the nursery. And such a choice makes sense; many of the moms I know spoke glowingly about their rooming-in experiences – especially moms who had relatively short labors or sleepy babies who gave them the chance to recover from the not insignificant strains of childbirth. But other women – women who had marathon labors like mine, or difficult labors, women who bore fussy or hungry or colicky babies and then attempted to care for them through the night – found the experience torturous, or in many cases, simply impossible, and were grateful to be able to send the baby to the nursery for a night or two before going home.
Often, I find myself recalling with bitter amusement the tour guide’s explanation for our hospital’s policy: “We believe that new mothers actually sleep better with their babies close by.”
Yes, this must be why enemy interrogators frequently use tape recordings of screaming infants as a form of low-grade torture, because the sound is just so soporific.
Options are great. But so is rest and recovery. Could a more likely explanation be that rooming-in allows hospitals to cut down on staffing and other costs associated with running a nursery? It’s hard for me to accept that it’s really “better” for a woman who has been laboring for days, who perhaps hasn’t slept well in weeks, to be kept awake for an additional two nights and sent home with her new infant in a state of debilitating exhaustion.
The seriousness of this situation descended on me a couple of days after arriving home, when I felt a sore throat and muscle aches coming on, which I thought might be a flu. I completely broke down. I can’t do this, I thought. I haven’t slept in five nights. If I get sick, even a little, I won’t be able to take care of this baby. I phoned my mother, who’d been planning on flying in to visit a few days later. She answered the phone and I greeted her by repeating the same word again and again: Help, help, help.
I’m all for bonding. I’m all for women having the option of keeping their new babies beside them. Options are great. But so is rest and recovery. So is not being made to feel like a failed mother if you need to let someone else – say, a well-trained nurse – help care for your newborn while you regain the strength that labor saps.
That’s why, should I do it all again, I will deliver at a hospital where rooming-in is an option and not an expectation – where, should the need arise, I can stare into my new baby’s big beautiful eyes and caress his little hands all night long, in my dreams.