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What Can a Baby Gorilla Teach Us About the NICU?

Gladys, a newborn gorilla, was rejected.

She was born to a mother who wouldn’t care for her.

And the gorilla experts knew that Gladys may not survive without an attentive and loving mother.

Her story captured the hearts of many but may have escaped me but for 3 things:

  1. Gladys came to live at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden this summer – one of my favorite places here in Cincinnati.
  2. My daughter volunteers at the zoo through their TRIBE program (Teen Recruits Inspiring By Example) and kept me informed about Gladys’ progress every step of the way. (This included watching every YouTube video of Gladys – of which there are many. ☺)
  3. Gladys’ story compelled me – she was about to embark on a journey filled with the art and science of attachment of the human-gorilla then gorilla-gorilla kind. A rare and fascinating trek to be sure. But would it ‘work’? Would the gorillas accept Gladys after she bonded with humans? And how?

Well I found the answers to my questions as I watched the YouTube videos and news coverage. And something struck me. It struck me in the gut- where things that are meant to teach you something always strike. It was a visceral experience.

Wanna know the most important thing they did for Gladys as they prepared her to meet her adoptive gorilla-mom? Kept her attached to a human surrogate mother. 24 hours a day. 7 days a week.

How the heck did they pull that off?

The zoo recruited a specially trained volunteer group of 10 surrogate moms. They dressed in gorilla fur, fed Gladys, walked on all fours and vocalized in comforting gorilla tones (deeper and more vibratory than our human mother-ese). They did this so Gladys would learn vital survival and developmental skills within a safe and protected space – the chest or back of the surrogates.

The incredible devotion and allocation of resources given to Gladys’ attachment floored me. Humbled me. Taught me.

We KNOW where newborns belong. Yet the environment of the NICU presents many barriers to such attachment. The barriers often come in the form of medical equipment, yet sadly, sometimes we as NICU staff are the obstacle. We can sometimes present a psychological or ‘medical’ barricade between the mother and baby. Not everyone, and not all the time of course, but it happens.

Granted, Gladys was not ill. She did not require intensive medical care. And there weren’t 60 baby gorillas in need of this intense and focused attachment regime.

However, the babies we care for (for the most part) do NOT need 10 surrogate mothers. In fact, their mothers may be sitting right there, just inches from the isolette, for hours on end – arms strikingly empty.

How often do we impart to NICU moms that their presence is important for survival? For bonding and attachment? For the laying down of important psychological wiring regarding trust versus mistrust, safety and comfort.

Not often enough.

The #1 lesson NICUs can learn from Gladys:
Parents are the most under-utilized, life-changing resource in the NICU.

Let’s begin to change that today.

After watching the video below- go look around your unit. Who is sitting at the bedside dying to hold her (or his) baby today? Who is afraid to even ask for your wise and experienced help?

Let attachment be the order of the day. Every day. In my very humble opinion – this is the future of neonatal care.


Here’s a video clip of Gladys’ story:

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