Four years ago, after undergoing a C-section to deliver her baby, Monica Thompson, a first-time mother from Oregon, was prescribed narcotics to manage her pain from the surgery. In addition to the painkillers, Thompson also received a sleep aid to help her get some necessary rest. While rest is a good thing, in Thompson’s case, the combination of exhaustion and serious medications led to tragedy.
After a nurse brought Thompson her 4-day-old baby to breastfeed, she fell asleep while nursing him — only to wake up an hour later to find her baby still in bed with her and not breathing. When a nurse didn’t answer her call light, Thompson staggered into the hallway for help. Despite medical efforts, her son Jacob passed away 6 days later as a result of the suffocation he suffered in his mother’s bed.
And now, Thompson is suing the hospital where she gave birth and setting a precedent against the policy of forcing sleep-deprived mothers under the influence of prescribed medications following C-sections to care for their babies.
While these types of medications are not uncommon in a hospital setting — especially for women who have undergone C-sections — they can make for a dangerous combination. Women who give birth have not only gone through one of the most physically and emotionally draining episodes of their lives, they are also sometimes literally running on minutes of broken sleep.
My fourth baby was born after a 14-hour induction. I can clearly recall that my husband and I were so exhausted, that immediately after the birth at 1:30 am, all three of us completely fell asleep. We were awakened at 7 am by frenzied texts and calls from our family who wondered what on earth happened to us.
Giving birth is exhausting, but a C-section delivery is even more difficult on a woman’s body. The mother will be dealing with a combination of things, including: anesthesia wearing off, pain medication running through her body, and physical mobility issues. Even sitting up is painful after surgery. The fact that we expect a woman to properly care for a baby alone in that state is crazy.
Listen, I know we all have pushed to see birth as a natural thing and promoted mom-baby bonding and feeding from minute zero in the hospital, but this lawsuit is an important wake-up call. Moms don’t magically become super humans who don’t need sleep because they have given birth. This poor mother was probably so exhausted and in so much pain that she barely knew what was happening. Anyone who has been in this situation knows what it’s like.
This story points to two sobering truths about maternity care in the U.S.: One, hospitals are often understaffed, forcing nurses to return babies back to their mothers so they can care for other patients. Most obstetrics units do not have nurseries anymore, but many nurses still try to care for babies on the floor so parents can sleep whenever they can. In fact, 3 am charting with a gaggle of sleeping babies by our computers was a common sight when I worked in labor and delivery. Two, we expect too much out of mothers. I think we are all guilty of this — moms should “bounce back” a few minutes after giving birth, right? Do your makeup, take a photo for Instagram, and here’s your baby; it’s time to nurse again!
What about mothers without partners in the hospital? Even something seemingly simple, like lifting your baby up, can seem virtually impossible after a major abdominal surgery. Can you imagine a regular patient in the hospital going in for surgery and then being asked to care for another super needy patient placed in their room requiring around-the-clock care? Um, no.
Nurses are taught to never leave a baby with a sleeping parent. However, going an hour between checking on patients is common in a postpartum setting, as is leaving a mother to breastfeed in bed, so it’s hard to say with any certainty whether the hospital or nurse will be found negligent in this particular case. Either way, Thompson is adamant that her lawsuit is a way to bring awareness to the issue in the hope that a future tragedy can be prevented.
“I am sharing our story in the hopes that no mother or family will ever have to suffer through a tragedy such as this,” the heartbroken mother, now mother to a toddler girl, told People.
And Thompson’s lawsuit, tragic as it is, will hopefully serve as a wake-up call for hospitals to remember that breastfeeding is not more important than caring for the health of a baby and its mother. We can hope that her lawsuit changes some practices to ensure more safety checks for sleep-deprived and post-surgical mothers.
In the meantime, if you are preparing to give birth in a hospital soon, remember one thing: Never be afraid to ask for help.
Whether you are worried about falling asleep during a feeding and want your nurse to check back in on you in 10 minutes or if you just want help putting your baby back in her crib after a nursing session, please just ask. There is not a nurse in the world who wouldn’t be happy to do that for you.
Put the call light on. Throw a pillow at your partner. Set an alarm. Talk to the nurses ahead of time. But whatever you do, don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. Because even moms need to sleep sometimes, too, and no mother should ever suffer for simply getting the rest her body needs.