Do moms really have a ‘gut feeling?’

Listening to your gut instinct

It was midnight and I was sitting in the emergency room with my infant daughter who wouldn’t stop crying. We were not high priority. Three hours later, a nurse called us in and I told the doctor that I thought my daughter had an ear infection. She quickly checked her ears, said there was no redness, and sent us home.

Five hours later, I took her to the medical clinic where the pediatrician diagnosed her with a full-blown ear infection. Seventeen years later, I still bristle at the memory of that ER. That doctor should have listened to me, I thought. I knew what was going on before her symptoms even showed up. I know my child.

Whether you call it intuition, instinct or awareness, the ‘feeling’ that mothers get when they know something is wrong with their child is real. Deirdre Carey’s instincts saved her son Charlie’s life. When he was about six months old, she was in and out of the pediatrician’s office seven times within a six-week period.
The doctors diagnosed Charlie with typical childhood illnesses a runny nose, stomach bug, ear infection – nothing life-threatening, but Carey sensed there was more to her son’s illness. “I kept thinking, ‘there’s got to be something else,’” says the Franklin, Massachusetts resident and author of Hope, Faith and Charlie ( “There was no reason why I thought that other than my gut instinct.”

 Even though he had seen her son’s pediatrician only two days before, Carey took Charlie back again and insisted she see the head of pediatrics. She told the doctor that she didn’t know what, but she just knew that something was wrong with her son. He put his hand on Carey’s shoulder and told her, ‘Mom’s know best.’ Then he sent her and Charlie for tests. Suddenly, during a spinal tap procedure, Charlie stopped breathing. After emergency treatment and more tests, physicians discovered that Charlie had a lemon-sized brain tumor.

Charlie was diagnosed with a rare form of brain and spine cancer and they gave him ten months to live. Carey’s response to doctors when they told her there was only a one in a million chance that her son would survive was “Why couldn’t he be that one?” In her book Hope, Faith and Charlie, she details the family’s story, portraying their persistence in treating Charlie and his victory over cancer. Charlie celebrated his 10th birthday in September. After the diagnosis, Charlie’s doctor called Carey and said, “Thank God you listened to your instincts.”

Mother’s knowing

Glenna Rice, a pediatric physical therapist in San Rafael, California and facilitator of “Conscious Parenting, Conscious Kids” workshops, refers to mother’s intuition as “knowing,” and she says that it is not something that you learn from a book. “It is often a feather touch of awareness that something is going on with your child that is not right,” she says.

Carey experienced this feeling of knowing and she felt as if she was being pushed forward to act on it. At the time of Charlie’s diagnosis, she had been scheduled to fly to a trade show, but she didn’t go. “I knew I was never going to get on that plane, and I didn’t know why,” she says. “In my heart, I just knew there was something more.”

Be persistant

Angela Tucker’s instincts and persistence also saved her son’s life. At six-months-old, he developed a stuffy nose, followed by a fever. The Glens Falls mother took her son to the pediatrician when his fever spiked. The doctor checked his oxygen levels, which were low, and sent her home with a nebulizer treatment and a prescription for albuterol, that’s typically used to treat bronchial conditions.

The next day, the baby’s oxygen levels were fine. However, that evening, his fever spiked again, and he began panting. Tucker insisted on bringing her son to the pediatrician’s office yet again. Her son’s oxygen levels diminished, so the pediatrician rushed Tucker and her son to the hospital. By the time she arrived, her son’s oxygen levels were normal again.

Tucker knew that something was very wrong, and her instincts were right on. “At 10 p.m. that night, they rushed him to Albany Medical Center, where they pretty much had to keep him alive for nine days in the hospital,” she says. Later, her doctor told her that he did not feel that the outcome would have been good had Tucker not been as proactive as she was about her son’s care. “I feel that there’s this gut feeling that most moms have inside of them, and you have to trust it,” says Tucker, noting that sometimes one has to be aggressive. “Be that demanding mother.”

Don’t give up

Noreen Stevenson’s son screamed night and day, suffering from projectile vomiting and loose stools. Suspecting it was colic, Stevenson’s pediatricia had her change to different formulas. With a son in such distress so much of the time, that simple switch wasn’t satisfactory to Stevenson. “I was reading books and going on the Internet to do my own research. I knew something wasn’t right,” she says. She persisted. “I felt like they didn’t understand,” says the Chester resident. “Here I was with a screaming baby night and day.” When he was four months old, the doctor finally agreed to send her son to a pediatric gastroenterologist, who diagnosed and treated him for acid reflux.

“Don’t be afraid to ruffle feathers,” says Carey. “You’re not in this to win the most popular parent contest. You’re there to protect your child.”

Once you have a situation where your instincts proved to be correct, listening to them the next time  becomes easier. “The more you acknowledge your awareness, the stronger it becomes; it is a muscle you build,” says Rice. Understand that what you are feeling about your child is right,  even if others are telling you differently. “If you feel in your heart that something is wrong, you have to follow that instinct,” says Carey.

Joanne McFadden has two daughters and lives in Charlton.

Read about another mom who's persistence paid off for her son.