"Your baby has jaundice," I explained. I went into my typical spiel about jaundice, explaining what caused it and telling her it was unlikely to be a serious problem for her baby. I went on to talk about phototherapy, how we treat the jaundice by shining light on the baby. Her eyes began to moisten.
"The lights won't hurt him", I said quickly, trying to reassure her and keep her from crying. "He'll only need to be under the lights for one or two days probably."
Tears welled up in her eyes, filling her lower lids. "You mean he won't be able to come home with me?" she asked.
"No," I replied, "he has to stay here for the light treatment."
That did it. The floodgates opened and tears streamed down her face. She was scheduled to go home that day, and the idea of going home without her baby was too much to bear. This is a common reaction. Even if a baby is not very sick, even if you assure them the baby will be fine, there is something about being pregnant for nine months and then going home empty handed that really hits the wrong emotional button in a woman. I shouldn't be surprised by this, of course, but I'm embarrassed to admit how long it took me to figure it out. It shows how strong the natural maternal-baby bond is; it is inherent, instinctive, almost primal.
As neonatologists, we see a lot of very sick babies. Babies with just jaundice who need to be hospitalized only an extra day or two seem pretty lucky to us compared to our other patients. But that is small comfort to a mom heading home without her child.
Fortunately this baby was able to go home the next day. Unfortunately, he needed to be readmitted the following day for more phototherapy because his jaundice level shot back up too high. When mother heard that her baby needed to be readmitted, she really unloaded on my partner, saying some pretty unkind things in her frustration. A day and a half later, when the baby could go home again, I was lucky enough to be on duty, and mom was all smiles and thank yous. People like you a lot better when you give them good news rather than bad.