Maternal Instincts. Can You Trust Them?

I’ve spent my share of long nights balancing my head on the edge of a hard vinyl hospital “lounge.” Trying to sleep beside the bed of a sick child, with the constant interruption of obnoxious machines, the distant chatter of nurses echoing down the hall, and the incessant gaze of florescent lights is anything but restful.

I’ve seen needles probe for tiny veins, wide gashes sewn closed, and lethargic children attached to monitors, but never had I seen the look of sheer terror in the eyes of a newborn — until Zachary was handed to me by his weary, hospital-worn mother.

Zach was their first-born son. He was a healthy, happy little guy. Nursed entirely from birth, little Zach gained a whopping pound a week. Not bad for his first three weeks with a severed umbilical cord. But then he began to spit up.

In the initial call his mother’s voice carried a mixture of concern and curiosity. Something didn’t seem right. “He’s spitting up a lot.”

“It’s OK, babies do that. You certainly did. Every time I burped you, it was like pouring milk straight out of a pitcher over both my feet.” She listened, but her voice gave away her apprehension. She chose to believe me, but she wasn’t convinced. Deep down, she knew something was wrong.

The next call ratcheted up the speed and tone of her voice. There was a sense of urgency, she was clearly alarmed. “He’s really spitting up bad. It’s more like vomit! And every night he cries.”

Again, I tried to reassure her that what she was telling me all sounded well within the range of a normal healthy newborn. We also decided to weigh him, just to be on the safe side.

Another night passed by, and we weighed the boy again. The once happy little guy seemed to be increasingly fussy, no longer a “happy baby.” And now he was losing weight.

The next phone call was the turning point.

“Mom, he’s spiting up in his sleep.”

Babies don’t just spit up while sleeping. It was time to see a doctor — or past time.

We went in to see the pediatrician. At first he too dismissed our concerns as part of the down side of infancy, or possibly an eager new mom over-feeding. When we explained he was losing weight, the doctor was still not alarmed as we were; after all, the tubby little guy was in the upper percentile. Nevertheless, he offered to weigh Zach on his office scales. The plan was to then bring him back the following morning to compare the results.

The next day quickly turned into a whirlwind of anxiety. Zach was indeed losing weight. The diagnosis was Pyloric stenosis, a narrowing of the pylorus, which was preventing his milk from emptying out his stomach into his small intestine.

Surgery was scheduled, and doctor’s orders written. No nursing, nothing to eat until after surgery.

Zach’s cries for hunger grew more intense with every tick of the clock. Panic washed over his face, his ear-piercing screams were a plea for help. He was starving, and judging by the terror in his eyes — he knew it.

The only thing worse than a grandmother holding a starving baby is an exhausted, helpless mother watching — unable to sooth, comfort or even feed him.

Zach’s story has a happy ending. He had the benefit of the care of excellent doctors, a good hospital, and a diligent mother. Today Zach is turning into a fine young boy, with only an inch-long scar on his stomach to remind him of his ordeal. His mother bears a different kind of scar — the terrified face of a very sick child is seared into her mind’s eye.

By all accounts everyone involved did everything just as they should have. The doctor listened, assured, verified and acted. The mother tried to get help. But the real hero of the day was ignored, shoved aside, and quieted.

The real hero was Zach’s mother’s intuition. She knew something was terribly wrong, and an internal battle quickly ensued. In spite of the horror stories you read about, mothers are equipped to take care of their babies. Good mothers are the norm, not the exception. This is generally true throughout creation.

Part of being a good mom is that you don’t want to make any mistakes. Loving moms want the very best for their children. New moms have not yet earned their own trust. They know intimately their own track record of failures. They don’t want to add their precious baby to that list — so they doubt themselves.

A new mother will hear that small voice inside then check it with the people she trusts. Like Zach’s mother, she doesn´t always have the experience or facts to confirm or sometimes even articulate what she is feeling. So she fails to act on her own instincts. She decides to follow the advice of others she believes are more qualified.

Here are couple things to consider.

Parental instincts are invaluable; they should be followed, and verified. While they are never to be ignored, they can’t be solely relied upon either. That’s why it is extremely important for us to have an excellent pediatrician on staff.

Now granted, it’s seldom appropriate to ask for your doctor’s student transcripts to verify what kind of grades he got in medical school. So what do you look for? First ask your friends. Word of mouth is always the best first step. Then you want to look for a doctor who respects and even relies on your instincts as a mother because he knows it’s his first line of defense. If he is the sort that hands you a prescription or diagnosis with one hand while the other is on the door handle — go shopping for a new doctor.

Good doctors are hard to find so interview them while things are good and you have healthy children. Develop a close relationship with him, so much so that he recognizes you without a chart in his hand. Remember, when you find one that you trust, it’s just as important that he trusts you too. His knowledge combined you’re your instincts gives your children the best chances for a healthy start in life.

Every parent I know, mothers and fathers alike, can tell at least one story about how they ignored their instinct on something concerning their child, only to have time confirm they were right.

What’s yours?