Wen is an emergency physician and the health commissioner of Baltimore City.
Two months ago, my husband and I welcomed our baby son, Eli, into the world. Hearing his first cry and getting to hold him were the happiest moments of our lives. When he was placed on my chest and I could see and touch him, I felt like I knew him already. The doctors told us he was healthy and well. I couldn’t wait to start our lives together as a family.
The night we arrived home, Eli wouldn’t stop crying. Crying is normal in newborns, my husband and I assured each other. We held him and rocked him. Over the next 48 hours, we took shifts, staying up with Eli to try to soothe him through the near-nonstop crying. We called our friends for advice on how to deal with what we now labeled a “difficult baby.”
Things went downhill quickly. Our pediatrician confirmed that he was noticeably jaundiced. In just three days, he had lost 15 percent of his body weight. Though I was feeding him every two hours, it turned out that Eli never had a good latch on my breasts, and I wasn’t producing enough milk. We were told that he might need to be readmitted to the hospital.
I was overcome with shame and guilt. What kind of mother am I who was barely keeping my own baby alive? What is wrong with my body that something so natural didn’t happen? How could I, as a physician, not recognize that my baby was actually starving — and instead, blame him for expressing hunger in the only way he was able to?
As Eli began to catch up on feeds, I tried to gain perspective. Becoming a mother brings many new challenges. No matter how much I may know about the scientific benefits of breast-feeding, I needed help. My hospital has a wonderful lactation consultant and I have a terrific pediatrician; together, they helped us to get back on track. As I learned, I was hardly alone; 92 percent of women have trouble with breast-feeding initially. This was one of many humbling realizations that caring for a newborn requires many skills that I had yet to learn.
My experience has made me even more dedicated to public health programs to support women and ensure a healthy start for their babies. I’m health commissioner for the city of Baltimore, and responsible for overseeing programs like the B’More for Healthy Babies (BHB) initiative, which provides home visits by nurses, social workers and community health aides. They teach parents the ABCs of safe sleep (Alone, on the Back, in a Crib) and help with breast-feeding, resources to quit smoking, and other services like assistance with housing.
Since BHB started in 2009, the city has cut infant mortality by nearly 40 percent and reduced the disparity between African-American and white mortality by half. BHB’s engagement with every Baltimore hospital and dozens of community groups and churches has resulted in a 70 percent reduction in sleep-related infant deaths in just seven years.
The program also works to improve on women’s health before and during pregnancy. Studies show that women who do not receive prenatal care are five times more likely to have babies who die than women who do. I was fortunate that I received excellent care from a terrific obstetrician at Mercy Hospital. I was also fortunate that I have good health insurance. When complications occurred that necessitated additional ultrasounds and blood tests, I didn’t hesitate to do what was best for my baby. Not all women are that lucky. We must do everything we can to safeguard programs like Medicaid so that women who face economic and social challenges have the opportunity to raise healthy children.
Furthermore, the United States remains only one of two countries in the world that does not have paid parental leave. Despite ample research showing health benefits for maternity leave, including fewer illnesses in babies and reduced maternal depression, up to 1 in 4 women are back to work within two weeks of giving birth. I had an uncomplicated delivery and am otherwise healthy, but I cannot fathom being back at work when my baby required near-constant attention and my body was still healing. Going back to work after eight weeks has been a challenge, and that’s with a caring partner, reliable child care and a supportive workplace.
If the health of families and future of children are core values in our society, then we should implement policies that foster these values. We need health care for all regardless of ability to pay; paid parental and sick leave; and affordable child care. We must recognize that caring for newborns is hard, and that women and families need support and services to give every child the chance to grow and to thrive. We must uphold our duty to care for the most vulnerable and level the playing field of inequality.
This week, hundreds of families will gather at the National Aquarium to celebrate BHB’s anniversary. As I prepare remarks to share there with the families that I serve, I also celebrate Eli’s two-month “birthday” with a visit to the pediatrician. I am thrilled that he has more than made up for the initial weight loss and is now a happy and chubby 11-pounder. He also received his immunizations at this visit, which gives me the perfect opportunity to add an important public health message: vaccines are safe, effective, and life-saving!
There is much that I have yet to learn about motherhood and caring for my baby, but I feel so blessed every day to have him and to embark on the next chapter of our journey together.
Dr. Leana Wen is the author of When Doctors Don’t Listen: How to Avoid Misdiagnoses and Unnecessary Care. And she’s on Twitter: @DrLeanaWen