Argentine Babies Switched at Birth — Could It Happen Here?

File this under Mother’s Worst Nightmare Comes True: Two babies were switched at birth in Argentina last month and reunited with their moms on Monday only after a chance meeting at a pediatrician checkup. “I spent three weeks with a baby that was not my daughter, but I gave her all my love and knew that the other mom would do the same,” Lorena Gerbeno, a lawyer, told Argentine broadcaster C5N.

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Gerbeno and Veronica Tejada both gave birth to baby girls on Sept. 30 at the Sanatorio Argentina clinic in San Juan. Gerbeno realized something was off when staffers gave her conflicting information about the weight of her newborn. When she pressed, she adds, she was not given any answers. The clinic, meanwhile, has admitted that it made a “mistake” and is cooperating with an investigation.

Luckily, the ordeal ended happily. But how could it have even happened? And do expectant moms need to fret about it happening here in the United States?

“I think it’s every new mom’s fear,” Maureen Donohue, director of patient care services at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, tells Yahoo Shine. “The way they publicly see delivery [in pop culture] makes them think they’ll be out of it and that someone will take advantage of that.”

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Babies have been switched at birth—as well as abducted—in maternity wards in this country, although such cases are extremely rare. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, a total of 132 infants were abducted from hospitals between 1983 and 2012, with eight such abductions occurring in 2012 alone.

Instances of infants being switched, though, are even less common. Just last year, a Minneapolis hospital briefly mixed up infants by putting one baby into another’s bassinet, resulting in his being breastfed by the wrong mom. “You put your baby in the nursery, not even 48 hours old, and you think they're safe,” that boy’s mom, Tammy Van Dyke, told ABC News.

In 2008, two moms who had just returned home from delivering their babies at the Heartland Regional Medical Center in Marion, Illinois, received calls telling them that their infants had accidentally been swapped. It happened, the hospital explained, when the boys were taken at the same time to get circumcisions, and their IDs were removed and mistakenly put back onto the wrong babies.

The more horrific switcheroo stories are decades old: In 1998, it was discovered that Callie Conley and Rebecca Chittum had been switched in their Virginia hospital soon after being born; by that point, the girls were already 3 years old and one child's parents had died in a car crash. After years of legal battles, it was agreed that the girls would stay with the families who had raised them. And in 1978, in Sarasota, Florida, Kimberly Mays and Arlena Twigg were famously sent home with the wrong parents, which no one found out until the girls were 9. The dramatic tale inspired a made-for-TV movie in 1991. Today the mega-popular “Switched at Birth” television series is proof that the plot is ever fascinating.

But in real life, of course, it’s a horrifying possibility—and one that American hospitals today go to great lengths to avoid.

At Long Island Jewish Medical Center, the newest facility in the North Shore hospital system, Donohue says maternity-ward security measures are up-to-the-minute, starting with the moment a baby is born: That’s when one ID band is put on a wrist and two more are put on each ankle, bearing medical-record numbers as well as numbers that match those of both the mom and the second parent. Then, in the nursery, a third ankle band that’s synched to a “LoJack-like” system gets added into the mix, triggering an alarm that alerts security and the elevators anytime the infant exits his or her approved security boundaries.

Finally, Donohue notes, every maternity ward in the hospital system is a “lockdown unit,” where no one can pass in or out without permission. “If a visitor doesn’t know the name of the patient they’re coming to see, we turn them away,” she says. There’s no shortage of security cameras, either.

Other hospitals around the country take similar measures, with matching ID bracelets for mom and baby, as well as locked maternity wards, becoming the norm. “We take the security of our littlest patients very seriously,” notes the website of Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia. “Both our labor and delivery and maternity floors are locked units where only designated personnel can gain access using ID swipe cards. Families, visitors and other personnel can only gain entrance to the units by notifying staff via a bell system.”

More and more hospitals are adding the security-band system, either on an ankle band or with the umbilical-cord stub, including Saint Barnabas Medical Center in West Orange, New Jersey, and the Wake Forest Baptist Health–Lexington Medical Center in Lexington, North Carolina. LMC was prompted to add the measure in 2012 after a California incident in which a woman dressed in medical scrubs attempted to abduct a newborn by putting the infant in a bag.

"While the new system may seem cumbersome to some, it is necessary to ensure that our newborns are safe at all times," Steven Snelgrove, LMC president, said at the time. "New mothers and fathers are understandably absorbed with their new baby during their hospital stay. The enhanced security enables the new parents and the staff to focus on the most important thing — caring for a beautiful, healthy newborn."

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