Separated at birth Babies: The bad news is that thousands of newborns are probably switched. The good news is that hospitals usually catch mistakes.

Two Virginia babies were switched at birth three years ago, the world learned recently. Since then, talk has abounded: How often does this happen, why and how?

Answers are only speculative, but the statistics are startling.


About 28,000 babies get switched in hospitals every year, temporarily or permanently, out of four million births, says Nicholas Webb, vice president of technology for Talon Medical Limited, a San Antonio, Texas-based vendor of a new high-tech ID bracelet for newborns. He says his figures are from a 1996 study by Inter/Action Associates, a Las Vegas, Nev.-based security consulting firm.

If the figures are accurate - the National Institutes of Health doesn't track switches - this translates into one mistake per 1,000 transfers, Webb says. A transfer is every time the baby is brought from the nursery to the mom, and vice versa. During a mother's average two-day hospital stay, a baby is transferred about six times, he says.


"The good news is," he says, "most mistakes are fixed before the baby leaves the hospital."

In addition to the long-used ID bracelet systems, some hospitals have begun to promote immediate mother/child bonding - and therefore immediate recognition - by allowing newborns to remain in the delivery room for their preliminary physicals, rather than be taken to the nursery.

"This lessens the risk of a mom not being able to identify the baby," says Vivienne Stearns Elliott, spokeswoman for Greater Baltimore Medical Center.

Susan Quinn of Ellicott City, who gave birth to a baby boy this past week, spent six hours with him immediately after delivery. "If he wasn't the one to come back, we would've noticed," she says.

Standard hospital infant-identification procedures usually involve putting an ID bracelet on the baby immediately after birth, in the delivery room, and keeping it on until discharge. It's a system that has remained relatively constant since the 1950s.

A nurse in the delivery room fills in a baby ID bracelet with time of birth, sex, mother's name, doctor's name and an identification number, explains Jeanne Ten Broeck, assistant director of nursing for OB/GYN at Johns Hopkins Hospital. A bracelet is strapped onto each of the baby's ankles and the mother's wrist. The bracelets are compared each time the baby is transferred to and from the mother.

Before the newborn's discharge, the mother signs a form stating that she has the right baby, and one of the infant's bands is fixed onto the form for hospital records.

At Anne Arundel Medical Center, bracelets are given to both the mother and the father, says spokeswoman Mary Lou Baker.


Six months ago, Webb's company started selling a high-tech version of the ID bracelet, one that uses computer chips and scanners. Bracelets are strapped onto the baby's ankle and wrist and onto each parent. When a correct match is made, the system plays 10 bars of "Hush Little Baby Don't You Cry"; if there's no match, the bracelet blares "a very strident siren sound," says David Cocke, Talon's chief financial officer.

The band is about $10, according to Webb, "so for less than the cost of a large pizza you can protect your kid."

Webb says errors arise when parents don't take the time to verify for themselves the identification numbers, and assume that the nurses have done their jobs. But with managed health care attempting to reduce the cost of health-care workers, he says, "[we're] seeing a lot less nurses doing a lot more work."

Pub Date: 8/16/98