How Often Are Babies Switched at Birth?

Nurse handing newborn baby to her mother in the hospital

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In December 2016, Tammy Van Dyke, a mom from Minnesota, sued the hospital where her son was born in 2012 for the baby mix-up that occurred when she and her baby were patients. Van Dyke's son was given to another mother, who had recently given birth to twins and did not notice that the baby boy she had been given was not actually her son.

The other mother had Van Dyke's son with her for over two hours and even breastfed him before the mistake was realized. Both the baby boy and the mother who breastfed him were required to undergo extensive testing for HIV and hepatitis, as well as for other blood-borne pathogens that can be passed from body fluids.

The extensive testing, which took place over the course of an entire year, is what eventually prompted Van Dyke to sue the hospital. She claimed that she and her son had suffered emotional damage from the stress of trying to deal with the repercussions of the hospital's mistake.

Van Dyke's story is a rather frightening one, and it leads to the question of just how often babies are mistakenly switched at the hospital and what can you do to keep your baby safe during your own hospital stay.

Newborn Safety at the Hospital

Hospitals take the safety of newborns very seriously. Most units that have babies on the floor, including labor and delivery and NICU, are locked units, which means that no one can enter or leave the unit without permission from a staff member or a special code or badge that allows them access.

A family member who is visiting you after you've had a baby, for example, may be able to enter the floor, but will not be able to leave the floor without a staff member's approval. They may press a button at the nurse's desk to open the door after screening the visitor to ensure that they are not leaving with a baby.

Within the hospital, newborn safety is also critical. Hospitals all follow some kind of protocol designed to prevent mix-ups and keep both parents and newborns safe. Most units follow a system that uses identification bands that match the mother to the newborn, as well as one support partner.

Any time a nurse or other staff member leaves the room with the baby, they must first verify that the bands match. Upon returning the baby, the process is repeated to ensure that the baby is placed with the right parents. Visual inspection of the band numbers can be used and some hospitals have scanning equipment that uses technology to verify the bands are properly matched up.

Despite the systems set in place, obviously, mistakes do happen. Newborn wrists and ankles can be tiny and the bands can slip off or be removed more easily than you may think, staff members may get lax and not follow proper protocol, or parents may be too exhausted to notice a change has occurred.

What the Numbers Say

Unfortunately, there's no real way for us to know the exact number of babies that are switched by accident at the hospital, no matter how briefly the switch occurs. Hospitals may not keep track of those statistics and if they do, they may be accessed internally only.

Plus, it's hard to determine what constitutes a "mix-up"—does it count if a nurse was about to make the mistake but realized the error? 

Numbers from decades ago, when new technology was being created, said that a mistake may occur as rarely as 1 in every 1,000 transfers. With even more strict identification processes, you can be assured that the rate is much, much lower today.

How to Protect Your Baby

Without a doubt, the number one thing you can do to protect yourself and your baby in the hospital is to be aware that mistakes can happen and be as proactive as possible.

Consider the following tips:

  • Ask to have your partner tag along to any necessary tests that require your baby to leave the room—this is perfectly fine to do and you shouldn't feel silly for asking.
  • Ask the staff member to match the bands out loud to you, instead of just checking on their own.
  • Keep your baby in the room with you, instead of sending them to the nursery, if your hospital has one.
  • Put your baby in a distinctive outfit, cap, or swaddle so that they are easily recognizable to you.
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