Rosetta Kirks had learned what each cry meant during the first month she held, cooed over and cuddled the infant she thought was hers. And new mother Firdowsa Ahmed Maillet knew just how to cradle her baby to her bosom so that he would sleep peacefully.
Now, they must learn these things all over again--with different baby boys.
Kirks and Maillet were sent home with the wrong babies--each other's baby--when they left the maternity ward at Kaiser Permanente Hospital in West Los Angeles last month. The mistake was revealed on March 10, after each mother had spent 26 days nurturing the other woman's child.
Once the hospital had sorted out the mix-up, Rosetta was reunited with the real Nicholas, and Firdowsa with the real Wasim. Some of the anxiety and doubt was gone, but new anxieties and doubts have arisen as each mother struggles to welcome one baby while grieving for the other.
"When he (the first baby) cried, she would get up, no matter how tired or if she was in pain," Firdowsa's husband, Nicholas Maillet, said. "When he (Wasim) cries, she will hold him, but she is dreaming of the other one. The first love and the second love, it is not the same."
Rosetta Kirks said her Nicholas, in his first few days home "just knew" that she was not the same mother he had been with.
"Every time I held him, he cried," she said.
"He would cry and I'd have to give him right back up," Kirks said. "He wouldn't let me hold him. I couldn't even hold my own baby. I didn't feel too good about that. It kind of hurt."
Firdowsa Maillet breast-fed the baby she thought was hers. Now, she finds that her Wasim, who was bottle-fed by Kirks, does not like being breast-fed. It is frustrating for her.
"When I try to breast-feed him, he cries. I am always reminded of the other baby. He used to sleep on my chest. This one won't," she said. "I am trying to know this baby, but I am confused."
The Maillet son's name, Wasim, is Arabic for "handsome."
Firdowsa and Nicholas Maillet are Ethiopian. They speak Amharic to each other, and some of their comments in an interview at their home were interpreted through a friend, Meshesha Biru, who is a legal assistant to the Maillets' attorney.
Biru said the Islamic religion that the Maillets practice holds that if a woman breast-feeds a baby, that baby is her child forever.
"That's the hardest part," Biru said. "Even if the hospital tells her the baby is not from her womb, her religion tells her it is her son. They can tell her it was a switch, but it means little."
Because such baby mix-ups are rare, there is no body of research on what the long-term effects may be. Most experts agree that the parents and, to a lesser degree, the babies will go through a difficult--but not impossible--readjustment.
The normal development of the babies will depend largely on how well their parents adapt, child psychiatrists and specialists say. If the parents love and accept the baby that they end up with, then the child should not suffer permanently.
"There is a jolt to the child but not a terribly significant one. The jolt is to the parent, and if the parents can see themselves through that, then the babies are fine," said Dr. Michael Durfee, coordinator of the Child Abuse Prevention Program for the county's Department of Health Services.
Feelings of anger, despair and confusion would be expected in this situation, the experts say. A woman enjoys the euphoria of having brought a new child into the world, then is traumatized when she is told the baby is not hers.
Learn to Understand Cries
"You are looking at that baby with such total awe and wonder, and it's quite a thing to be told suddenly that all of this (emotion) was distributed in the wrong place," said Dr. Jeree Pawl, director of the infant-parent program at UC San Francisco.
In their initial weeks, during what amounts to near-round-the-clock care, experts say new parents begin to figure out what their baby's cries mean, how to soothe the child, and how he or she likes to be held.
Much of what is called "bonding," experts say, is nonverbal. It is the forming of an attachment based on smells, tone of voice, body rhythms, touch. It comes at feeding and bath time, or when diapers are changed.
Even in just one month, the baby becomes accustomed to his mother or father based on these nonverbal, often instinctual signals.
To a baby, "adults aren't interchangeable. Even by one month, the baby is going to recognize the person caring for him," Pawl said. "They'll know something is different."
Kirks described her efforts to start over. She said she must buy new baby clothes because the other baby was smaller. And she must divine what her baby wants when he cries.
"I had learned his (the first baby's) ways, what he wanted when he cried. When he was wet. When he was hungry. When he just wanted someone to pay him some attention," Kirks said.