Day release?

24th May, 2008

Dear Economist,
In some countries, mothers and their newborn babies are kept in hospital for many days, while in others they are discharged quickly. Which is right? I’m pregnant, and I want to know whether I should be lobbying for a long stay or for early release after my baby is born.
Michelle, north London

Dear Michelle,

A simple analysis won’t answer you, because we would expect more complicated or worrying cases to stay longer in hospital. But that does not imply that long hospital stays cause complications and worry.

Instead, we need to observe what happens to mothers and babies sent home early or late for no good reason.

Fortunately, there is no shortage of such cases. Californian insurers will pay for a certain number of nights in hospital, but the clock starts at midnight. A baby born at one minute past midnight has nearly 24 hours before clocking up one night in hospital; a baby born two minutes earlier will clock up her first night in hospital within seconds. The economists Douglas Almond and Joseph Doyle used such comparisons to examine whether the extra night was helpful.

They looked at whether mother and baby survived, and whether they had to be readmitted later. There was no evidence that longer hospital stays were helpful.

My experience is that an extended stay for mother and baby is a welcome respite – for the father.

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