December 4, 2005 -- The "Ideas" section of today's Baltimore Sun included a short photo-based item by Elizabeth Malby about two "baby nurses" who are helping a local woman who recently gave birth to quintuplets. A longer November 27 story by Nicole Fuller about the quintuplets also included discussion of these care providers. Both pieces describe them as "nurses," but they appear to be infant care providers who at most have taken a CPR class, not health professionals with years of college-level science training. Of course, such providers often wrongly refer to themselves as "nurses." The main provider profiled here, Meredith Ball, builds much of her web site around the term "babynurse." But this marketing practice and the Sun 's effective endorsement of it reinforce the common view that any caregiving female may properly be termed a "nurse," regardless of her health training or skill. Because that basic misunderstanding is a factor in the nursing crisis, the Sun 's pieces reflect serious reporting and editing failures.
The item in today's "Ideas" section is "Five's a crowd; two more are company." It consists of a photo and brief text by Malby, set off in a special box-like graphic and labeled as a "Viewfinder" item. According to the caption, the photo shows "[n]urse Meredith Ball" bottle feeding one of the quintuplets. The caption adds: "Ball and nurse Annie Duguid have been helping out since the quints were born in September." The text refers to Ball and Duguid twice as "nurse[s]" and once as "baby nurses" in describing how they stepped in to help new parents Jennell Dickens and Noval Davis. It notes that the two helped establish feeding schedules and provided care while Dickens slept.
Fuller's November 27 piece, "Little babes, big change," appeared in the Maryland section and described the challenges the new parents face in more detail. The quints were born by C-section 10 weeks premature. The piece notes that they were "all relatively healthy, doctors say." However, neither parent was working outside the home at the time of this article, and money was tight. The piece notes that they got help from Dickens' sister, and that volunteer "baby nurse" Ball came by several times a week to help organize feeding and care. We read that Ball's business, Babiease, is a "baby nursing company." The piece twice describes Ball as "the volunteer nurse." When Ball arrived at the apartment, she washed the infants and gave mom a break.
However admirable her work may be, Meredith Ball does not seem to be a nurse, and a major newspaper like the Sun should not call her one, just as it would not call her a "physician" or a "journalist." The Babiease site includes Ball's resume, which states that she is a 1997 high school graduate who is CPR "[c]ertified." There is no mention of college, though it takes at least three years of college to become a registered nurse. Ball herself has gone to great lengths to create the impression that she is a type of "nurse." Her site extensively promotes the term "babynurse," which it defines as "an experienced infant/newborn specialist who comes into your home in the first weeks of your infant's life to assist parents with the day-to-day care of their new baby." The "babynurse" "educates and supports" the new parents with "[b]ottle preparation (if not breast-feeding)," feedings, the cleaning of baby-related items, laundry and overall organization. Ball's site notes that she has a "basic knowledge of medical care of newborns and preemies." It seems that Ball has skill in providing lay care to infants, but that is not "nursing." And although we could understand this kind of thing slipping into the Sun's advertising, or some barely edited employment circular, the sections in which these items appear are at the heart of the paper's news function--the Sunday Ideas section and the local news section.
Sadly, this "baby nurse" problem is not unique to Baltimore. In August 2005, the New York Daily News ran two pieces that highlighted the issue of the minimally-trained infant caregivers who market themselves as "baby nurses." Both pieces stemmed from the case of a local infant caregiver who had reportedly confessed to seriously hurting babies in her care. An August 28 piece by Pete Donohoe and Caitlyn Kelly had a fairly good discussion of the problem, but an August 22 piece by Donohoe had actually added to it. The earlier piece had repeatedly called the caregiver in question a "nurse," even though it had also noted--well into the story--that she was "not a licensed nurse but apparently had certificates in basic infant care and CPR."
What's the problem with "baby nurses?" The problem is that referring to every female care giver as a "nurse"--even if the specific image is positive--reinforces the common view that nurses are handmaidens without college training whose main job is providing skilled lay care. This is tremendously damaging to an autonomous health profession that requires years of college level science education, but that is currently in the midst of a critical global shortage. In fact, key features of that shortage are the continuing reluctance of men to enter it and the relentless disinformation about it coming from the mass media. Nurses save lives every day by applying their advanced scientific training. Baby nurses do not.