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How Safe Are Maternity Wards?

It's an expectant parent's worst nightmare: Your precious newborn is snatched from the hospital or is sent home with someone else by mistake. Despite occasional shocking reports  -- such as last summer's revelation that two babies in Virginia had been switched in 1995  -- maternity-ward abductions and switches are rare and getting rarer.


Moving beyond the standard precautions  -- such as an identification-band system for newborns and their parents, as well as requiring all staff to wear ID badges  -- some maternity wards are going high tech to further tighten security. An estimated 10 percent of U.S. hospitals now outfit infants with a tiny radio transmitter (mounted in their bracelet or an umbilical-cord tag) that triggers an alarm if the baby is removed from the maternity ward without authorization or if the bracelet is cut.


In one sophisticated system being used in several hospitals around the country, bracelets are embedded with identically coded microchips and given to newborn, mother, and father. Before discharge, a nurse waves a portable reader over each family member's bracelet. If they don't match, an alarm sounds; if they do, a lullaby plays, and the family goes home. Hospital security is bound to get tighter yet: Electronic systems, even DNA matching, are expected in the future, according to experts.


But some experts say the key to hospital security is staff vigilance, not technology. They note that routine hospital procedures have worked: In the past seven years, the average annual number of newborn kidnappings has dropped from 12 to about 4  -- out of four million births per year. And although there are no comprehensive figures on baby switches, most experts agree that they are even rarer than abductions.