Italian hospital investigated after newborn dies under sleeping mother

Controversy is mounting in Italy over conditions in hospital maternity units after a newborn is believed to have died by suffocation under the weight of his mother who fell asleep after breastfeeding him.

An investigation is under way into the tragedy, which occurred at the Sandro Pertini hospital in Rome on 8 January. The results of the autopsy are expected within 60 days.

The child was born three days earlier after his 30-year-old mother went through 17 hours of labour.

According to hospital regulations, staff ought to have ensured that the baby was returned to his cot after breastfeeding. Prosecutors will look into whether the rules were violated, as well as allegations of negligence.

Realising that the child was at risk of being suffocated, a woman in a nearby bed reportedly called for help, but the child died before the staff member arrived.

“My client remembers suddenly being woken up and no longer having the baby with her,” Alessandro Piombi, the lawyer of the newborn’s mother, told the news website Fanpage. “She said they took her to a room where they told her the tragic news.”

The child’s father claimed that a request by his exhausted partner for the baby to be taken to the nursery so that she could rest for a few hours was refused.

The Italian health ministry ordered a report on the incident as a petition calling for there to be more checks and better post-childbirth support for families in maternity wards attracted more than 100,000 signatures by Wednesday.

Dozens of mothers have shared their experiences of being “abandoned” in post-childbirth, while unions have decried staff shortages, a situation exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.

“It could have happened to anyone,” wrote one woman on social media. “After 15 hours of labour and an emergency caesarean, I fell asleep exhausted with my daughter Giulia on my chest. I woke up screaming because she had gone and I thought she had fallen on the floor, but luckily my mother had put her in the cot.”

The local health authority responsible for the Sandro Pertini hospital said it would cooperate with the investigation but it denied allegations of inadequate post-childbirth service and said there was no shortage of staff in the department.

Healthcare systems are struggling across Europe, with an ageing population, more long-term illnesses and a recruitment crisis taking their toll.

Giovanni Leoni, the vice-president of an Italian doctors’ federation, said in December that staff shortages were prevalent across all hospital units, especially since the pandemic triggered an exodus from the profession.