Updated 07 October 2016

Switched at birth: how does it happen?

Babies switched at birth cause a huge dilemma for families: does one keep the child you’ve grown to love, or do you switch them back?

How does baby switching happen, what are the options once it is discovered, and how can it be prevented?

Baby switching does indeed happen outside of soap operas, but it is relatively rare. These switches happen in hospital maternity wards, where babies are taken to be bathed or given medical attention (such as circumcisions), and are then not returned to their biological mothers by medical staff. It is usually a genuine error.

Read: The lowdown on circumcision

Mothers are usually exhausted after giving birth or having a Caesarean section, and may not be as attentive as usual. Added to that, many newborns are very similar in appearance and seldom have any distinguishing features. For obvious reasons, the switched babies are always of the same sex.

Preventative mechanisms

Most hospitals put name bands on newborn babies, with the name of the mother, the infant’s sex, its time of birth as well as a medical record number. Some hospitals take foot prints, fingerprints and palm prints of the babies to prevent any mix-ups.

Switches are sometimes discovered immediately, and sometimes only years or decades later.

Paternity tests are sometimes done at the request of fathers, who suspect the child is not theirs. These tests reveal that the child is also not that of the mother.

DNA tests can verify the child’s true identity, once hospital records are traced for the time the babies in question were born. Sometimes siblings who want donate blood to each other, or donate a kidney, can find out that they are, in fact not related.

Read: Paternity tests in first trimester

Real cases

News24 reports an incredible coincidence has led to a family finding their daughter 17 years after she was snatched from her sleeping mother’s arms. A DNA test has confirmed the girl's identity. She was taken from her mother when she was just 3-days-old in April 1997, reported the Cape Argus. 

Her biological sister started Grade 8 at the same school that the 17-year-old attends and other pupils started noticing the striking resemblance between the two. After the two sisters struck up a friendship, her biological family invited the matric pupil over for coffee and, after seeing the likeness themselves, contacted police.

An Argentinian man, who wanted to donate blood to his sister, found out that his blood type was different to that listed on his birth certificate.

Sometimes one of a twin is switched with another baby. There have been numerous cases where this has come to light when people who know both twins notice the remarkable likeness. This happened in 2001 to a woman from the Canary Islands. Two Dutch girls who were switched at birth in 1931 met one another years later at a wedding and were struck by the degree to which they resembled each other’s families. Tests revealed the truth.

A court case in 1995 in South Africa highlighted the story of two SA woman, Margaret Clinton-Parker and Sandra Dawkins, whose sons had been switched at birth in 1989 in a state hospital. They were the only two women giving birth at the hospital that day, raising questions about the competence of the hospital staff. They were awarded damages of R120 000, and initially kept the children they had been given, At age 15, one of the boys decided to move in with his biological mother and the boys continued to live as brothers.

The fallout

The heartbreak caused by such a switch is huge. Parents become attached to a child they think is their own, only to find out their real baby is being brought up by someone else. It is a dilemma not even King Solomon could solve: does one switch the children back, keep things as they are, or let the children decide if they are old enough?

What frequently happens if the children are older, is that they stay with the families they were given to, but spend a fair amount of time with their biological family.

More often than not, families sue hospitals successfully when they have been the victims of a baby switch.

Image: Shutterstock

Sources: listverse;; Wikipedia

Read more:

Birth is no reason to go to hospital
Brother donates kidney to save his sister
Folic acid for a healthy baby


Read Health24’s Comments Policy

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Live healthier

Lifestyle »

E-cigarettes: Here are five things to know

E-cigarettes have become hugely popular in the past decade, but a rash of vaping-linked deaths and illnesses in the US is feeding caution about a product that's already banned in some places.

Allergy »

Ditch the itch: Researchers find new drug to fight hives

A new drug works by targeting an immune system antibody called immunoglobulin E, which is responsible for the allergic reaction that causes hives.