I'm a fairly big control freak—at least when it comes to my children. I don't do drop-off playdates at other people’s houses, use teen sitters or let other people besides family drive my kids around. I'm as helicopter as they come. So you'd think, when it came to those first few days after my daughter was born, I would've been a wreck—protective, anxious, over-analyzing. But four and a half years ago, when we welcomed Lilly into this world, I was so chill. I knew from family and friends that the calmer you are, the calmer baby is, and I really wanted my daughter to be in the most relaxed environment possible. In fact, I was so zen (and equally exhausted), I even let her go to the hospital nursery for a few hours so I could get some sleep.
It was something other people had recommended when I was still pregnant, but I had balked at the mere mention of it. I thought, "Oh sure, like I'm going to send my newborn away and out of my care in a hospital with hundreds of other people!" And yet there I was, ordering her away like she was an empty room service tray. And it was the best idea (and sleep) I had all year. The hospital where I delivered happily took her to the nursery and returned her two hours later, and that was that.
Fast forward nearly five years: I had just given birth to my son, Oliver, this time at a different hospital. As a second-time mom, I knew the benefits of a few precious hours of sleep in a controlled environment with topnotch care—so I requested that my baby room in the nursery, as his sister had done years before. But much to my dismay, I was met with resistance.
The nurses informed me that the hospital was a "rooming-in" facility, meaning moms are encouraged to keep baby with her in her room at all times. Which, in practice, meant the hospital actively discouraged you from having your child stay in the nursery. I immediately felt judged, like there was only one way to mother (or at least only one way they approved of). I felt as if, in their eyes, by sending my newborn to the nursery so I could get some sleep, I was saying I didn't want to bond with him and that my needs were more important than his, making me a selfish, detached mother.
In the end the nurses acquiesced, and off to the nursery my little boy went. And all the while I was panicked about his safety, worrying over how he was doing and excited for his return. I was also grateful for the uninterrupted sleep so I could be a somewhat mentally stable, present mother when he was in my room. Each time I asked that he go to the nursery (which, thankfully, wasn't too many, since I had a vaginal birth and was only in the hospital for 48 hours), the uncomfortable dance commenced: I'd sheepishly ask, they'd exude disdain, he'd go anyway and then I worried about him being there with negative nurses, unable to fully enjoy my fleeting freedom. Still, it was worth it. No matter how anxious I was, exhaustion took over and I quickly passed out.
Since then, while sharing my experience with other parents, I’ve discovered that, like most things in motherhood, I'm not alone. One friend told me that after having a c-section, she fell asleep while holding her son and woke with his head buried in her armpit. She was (understandably) beside herself, thinking of what could have happened. "Can you imagine if hospitals asked other patients who'd had major surgery and were on drugs to watch a newborn baby overnight?" she said.
Hospitals encourage rooming-in so mothers can bond with baby. But here's the thing: Moms are in the hospital for 48 to 72 hours, and we're awake for the majority of that time. We’re talking two to four hours max out of the day that baby is away at the nursery. I still fed, cuddled, nuzzled and studied my son. I changed his diapers and helped with his bath. We had skin-to-skin contact, I sang to him and took five million photos. Make no mistake, that little boy and I bonded—and I was in a better mental state to do so after getting a little shut-eye.
They say rooming-in also helps establish a routine—which just makes me laugh. Every parent knows that, regardless of whether baby has been with you 24/7 in the hospital or spent some time in the nursery, any semblance of a routine flies out the window once you get home. When you're away from the experts and dealing with little to no sleep, raging hormones and recovery, you're alone on an island—like Tom Hanks in Cast Away, except Nelson the volleyball is actually a living, breathing, tiny human that’s left in your clumsy care.
They also say rooming-in helps you learn baby’s cues. But again, I have to call BS. I wish you were able to learn your infant’s cues in an hour or two! That kind of thing takes days, sometimes weeks. And as every parent knows, as soon as you're able to navigate whatever stage baby is in, it's over and you’re left to figure out the next. Parenthood is one long trial-and-error experiment filled with lots of unwanted opinions, Google searches, guessing games and a bit of blind luck.
Rooming-in supposedly assists with baby blues too. Now, I don't want to begin to speak for mothers with postpartum depression, but as someone who briefly experienced the blues, I have to say a screaming baby made it far worse. When I was feeling down, what I needed most was for someone—anyone—to take my daughter from me. I think one of the greatest gifts you can give a new parent (or any parent, for that matter) is a few free hours to sleep, think, bathe and breathe.
There are clearly many purported benefits to rooming-in, and for some it works wonders. I'm simply saying that a sleep-deprived, emotional mom who's just gone through childbirth (not to mention nine months of pregnancy) and who would like a few moments of uninterrupted rest should be fully supported, not questioned or judged. After all, it's her baby and her experience. Why should anyone else, especially a hospital policy, tell her how to do things?
Published November 2017
Natalie Thomas is a lifestyle blogger at Nat's Next Adventure, an Emmy-nominated TV producer, contributor to Huffington Post, Today Show, CafeMom, heymama and Womanista, and former editor and spokesperson of Us Weekly. She's addicted to Instagram and seltzer water, lives in New York with her tolerant husband, Zach, 4-(going on 14!)-year-old daughter Lilly and newborn son, Oliver. She's always in search of her sanity and, more importantly, the next adventure.