It's about you, too

The hospital tour guide stopped next to a bank of windows, behind which stood a darkened room filled with folding chairs, empty boxes and definitely no babies. 

“This is the nursery,” he announced, smirking. 

Some prospective patients laughed nervously; others chuckled knowingly. 

“Yeah, we don’t ship babies away to the nursery at this hospital,” he said. “In fact, we keep the coffee pot in there!” 

“Makes perfect sense to me,” I thought, having sucked down a veritable Big Gulp of the natural parenting Kool-Aid: Nurseries were a relic, a misguided practice from the era of rampant pregnancy smoking and twilight sleep. Betty Draper surely sent her babies to the nursery. Look how things turned out for her!

The proper way to give birth 

Any well-informed person today knows there are certain things you should do in order to ensure the best outcomes for one’s baby. 

When I was pregnant with my first child, I’d internalized a variety of specific ideas about what constituted the “right” kind of birth. 

An un-medicated childbirth was a given, of course, preferably in a tub of water. Epidurals had clearly been invented to keep women “on their backs,” both literally and figuratively. 

Naturally, I was going to hire a doula. I didn’t have plans to slow dance with my partner in the hospital hallways to ease labor pains (I have my limits), but I had every intention to “ride the rolling waves of contractions” while splayed regally atop a stability ball.  

But that was just the criteria for the birth. Once my baby was born, I would hold her close — skin to skin — for at least an hour while our mingling mojo opened the floodgates of my breast milk. Then we would snuggle in our cozy hospital room, settling effortlessly into a breastfeeding groove. 

Let’s hear it for the babies

This dreamy vision of childbirth is hot these days, at least among a certain upper-middle class demographic. The notion of the “baby-friendly hospital” is also an ideal many health systems aspire to. And why not? I mean, who wants to give birth at a baby-unfriendly hospital?

The mission of the baby-friendly hospital initiative, for those who are unfamiliar, is basically to strongly encourage hospitals to make a full-scale commitment to promoting breastfeeding as the ideal way to feed babies. 

And that’s great, right? We need more programs and policies that support women who choose to breastfeed. 

First time: Baby-friendly

The hospital where I had my first baby was definitely baby-friendly in spirit, if not in official designation. We had no choice but to room in, which means your baby stays in your room at all times and you’re expected to change all the diapers, handle the feedings and so on. There are no trips to the nursery, obviously (remember, that’s where they keep the coffee pot). There are no pacifiers, and there’s definitely no formula. 

For me, all this baby-friendliness was a nightmare. 

Breastfeeding clearly wasn’t working (as evidenced by my daughter’s unremitting screaming at the breast), but no nurse, midwife or lactation consultant (LC) would admit it. 

Deep into the breast,” the LC would murmur as she attempted to cram my spindly, almost-premature baby’s mouth into my “breast sandwich.” 

These were good-intentioned efforts to support my decision to breastfeed. But when I think back to my hospital stay, all I can remember is a sleepless nightmare punctuated by visits from healthcare professionals who seemed to be telling me this breastfeeding thing would work itself out as long as I was willing to try harder. 

(Note: I actually breastfed my baby for over a year, but always had to supplement with formula. This was after months using a supplemental nursing system and pumping every four hours.) 

Second time: Mother-friendly 

With my second baby, I wasn’t interested in revisiting the martyrdom of my first postpartum stint. I had an epidural. I “offered the breast” and pumped in the hospital to encourage milk production, but I also supplemented my baby with donor milk — from a bottle — during his stay in the special care nursery.    

In other words, I thought about my needs, in addition to the needs of my baby (which were front and center, of course). When you’re pregnant, giving birth and navigating the postpartum period, it’s essential that you learn to advocate for yourself. 

That might mean questioning your doctor’s advice to induce, or refusing the offered epidural, or insisting that your partner and doula be admitted to the delivery room. 

But it can also mean that you learn to advocate for your own comfort and health, too — like asking a nurse to watch your baby for an hour so you can rest, or taking a bath instead of pumping for the third time in 10 hours. 

Shannon Keough lives in Minneapolis with her husband and two children. Send questions or comments to