Nancy L. Segal Ph.D.


Twins and Non-Twins Switched at Birth: How Rare?

Issues raised by twins switched at birth

Posted Oct 01, 2011

With last month's publication of my new book, SOMEONE ELSE'S TWIN: THE TRUE STORY OF BABIES SWITCHED AT BIRTH (also see Psychology Today, Sept/October 2011 issue), I have given several public lectures and heard from many people around the country. I discovered a man who had been switched at birth, and I spoke with a woman who had been given the wrong infant to breastfeed while still in the hospital. Such cases are rare and most people are raised by their biological families. However, we only hear about the cases that are identified, not the ones that go undetected, making it difficult to know how often baby switches truly occur. As I say in my book, mothers rarely question whether the babies given to them at delivery are theirs.

Two independent medical sources have estimated that 20,000-23,000 incorrect transfers of babies occur each year in US hospitals. Incorrect transfers, such as bringing the baby to the wrong room for a medical procedure, are quickly corrected for the most part. Still, for every incorrect transfer, two families go home with the wrong child. I realized while writing the book that switched identical twins have the best chance of discovering the mistake because they may be confused for one another throughout their lives-that is how the switched twins from the Canary Islands that I write about learned of one another. Switched fraternal twins and non-twin infants would be less likely to learn the truth.

This leads to another key question, raised in my book and also in a recent lecture: Given that switches can destroy lives and shatter identifies, would families be better off never learning that a switch had occurred? I have always maintained that it is better to know the truth than not to because it facilitates clear understanding and informed decision making. However, I have softened my position on this view because not all members of the families I interviewed felt this way. Clearly, personal experience offers a different perspective on events than reason and rationale can provide.

About the Author

Nancy L. Segal, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology and the Director of the Twin Studies Center, at California State University, Fullerton.

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