Like every new mother, or maybe at least the good ones, Amy said she was worried if her baby was getting enough. Henry was a week old, and I walked her through my iterative procedure to determine if he was getting what he needed. He was gaining weight appropriately. He was having lots of wet diapers. He was satisfied after nursing, and could be heard swallowing voraciously at every feeding. This was apparently an adequate response until she asked me if I thought he’d be alive in 6 months.
I wasn’t going even to try and finesse this over the phone. I stopped at the supermarket, picked up a small portion of hot macaroni and cheese along with a little bit of cut-up watermelon, and drove directly to her house. Intentionally, I did not ask if it was a convenient time for a visit. I didn’t care if it was convenient—it was necessary.
Her mother was there to open the door. Though it was just a few minutes ago when we were on the phone, her mother had arrived in the meantime. I thought that was lucky and we introduced ourselves. I asked where Amy was, and her mother directed me upstairs. I was carrying the old-fashioned housecall bag that I kept in the car, but I didn’t think I would need to examine the baby.
Henry was a term baby, and healthy. Amy had been doing a good job keeping up with the demands of initiating breastfeeding, and her general concerns were common, reasonable, and could be comfortably answered with rational reassurance.
I walked up the stairs to the master bedroom, where Amy was in bed, holding the baby. It’s was a nice big room, with big windows that looked out onto a garden. The windows were closed. I asked how she was and she said she was OK. The baby was OK, too. It was nice of me to come over, but it wasn’t really necessary. I told her that I had brought over a little watermelon, which has a lot of water in it. It was July, after all. I also brought over some macaroni and cheese—though I had this before and the store where I bought it usually makes it quite bland. It was a good way to raise your blood sugar if you haven’t been eating right.
She admitted that she hadn’t really been eating right. She was in bed, I noted, and it was about 5:30 in the afternoon. She said she hadn’t been out of bed much, either. I didn’t mention it, but I didn’t really understand why her mother was downstairs and she and the baby were upstairs. It’s hard to know what the right approach is to get a channel of communication open. I’m usually very good and very intuitive at this with children, but I’m not as skilled with adults. I decided that for the moment, I’d let my actions speak for themselves: I was there. I didn’t tell her to call if something happened, I actually showed up. I believe that sometimes that is exactly what’s needed.
So I didn’t immediately confront her about what she said. “Do you think it’s warm in here?” I asked. It felt like a sauna to me, though I’m biased by my weight. I was self-conscious about the beads of sweat I knew were appearing on my bald scalp. In my little doctor bag, there was an infrared thermometer. It read 95° [35°C].
Amy said, “Oh god yes. I like it cool and so does my husband. But it has to be warm for the baby, right?”
“Is the baby cold?” I asked. He looked comfortable enough in her arms, wrapped in a blanket and wearing a hat.
“How can I tell?” she asked. I asked if the baby’s hands or feet were cool or purple. She had to unwrap him to look, and they weren’t. But, she noticed, his back was sweaty. I put down the doctor bag. I asked if it had been this temperature in the room for the 4 days since the baby was brought home from the hospital. It had been, she said, because they wanted it to be comfortable for the baby.
I walked to the windows and opened them. “What are you doing?” she asked.
“I’m making the room temperature compatible with life for non-reptiles.” I explained that if having a newborn baby in the room was not enough of a cause of sleep deprivation, being uncomfortable would suffice as well.
Her thought was reasonable, even right in a way. Babies do have more difficulty maintaining their body temperature and need to be kept warm enough, especially if undressed. But they are warm-blooded, at least in some general Linnaean sense. They will maintain their body temperature with appropriate energy resources and insulation. I coached her on this point as I undressed the baby and took off his hat. I suggested a couple of thin layers, that were easy to add or remove as needed. That kind of management is less practical for adults, so it was important to keep the environment comfortable for her and her husband. The baby could be dressed as needed. She liked this idea.
Maybe to my sophisticated readers this will seem simplistic, but I don’t think it is. Again and again I find that housecalls can be profoundly helpful, often in unexpected ways. In this case, Amy did indeed have some postpartum depression. We are dealing with that, hopefully, in helpful ways. But the housecall accomplished several important things.
She knows, in a convincing way, that I will actually come to her house if needed. She’s not in this by herself.
I know what she’s got, I’m concerned about it but not frightened away.
She has my permission to be comfortable. This is so important. It’s crucial, of course, that the baby gets what he needs to thrive. But those needs are pretty basic. Once the baby’s needs are met, the next priority is finding a way to make the new world order work for the parents in some practical way. Amy was doing a good job with the needs of the baby. She was ignoring her own. I wanted her to know that getting some relief in the misery of the mother is good for the baby, too.
After making the ambient temperature low enough to assuage my concern that the buttons on my shirt might melt and leave permanent scars seared into my chest, I had several other suggestions for her. That’s next.