Baby death, particularly stillbirth, is a largely taboo subject. Yet stillbirth rates in the UK are around the same today as they were in the late 1990s. Tragically, 1 in every 200 births ends in stillbirth, and 1 in every 350 babies dies within the first four weeks of life.
Why does stillbirth happen?
It is a common misconception that these deaths happen because of a developmental or genetic problem that means the baby could not survive. In fact, major birth defects are the cause of stillbirth in less than one in ten stillborn babies. Around a third of stillbirths are unexplained (in other words perfectly formed, normal-sized babies); and a further third have not grown properly (they are said to be 'growth restricted').
There are well-documented risk factors for stillbirth, such as smoking and obesity, but babies at highest risk are those with poor growth that's not picked up during pregnancy. These pregnancies are therefore thought to be 'low risk' when in fact they're not.
There can also be problems for the mother before or during labour which lead to stillbirth. These include placental damage, haemorrhaging, pre-eclampsia, infection and other conditions.
For around one third of babies, there is no clear cause for the death.
Practical support for parents
Advice from stillbirth charity Sands on taking things a day at a time:
- Be gentle with yourself and give yourself time to grieve and time to heal
- Try not to expect too much of yourself
- Be patient with your partner, especially when he or she reacts differently from you
- Accept practical and emotional support from other people
- Try not to waste energy being angry with people who say or do the wrong thing
- If possible, give yourself at least a year before making any big decisions such as moving, changing your job, or changing your lifestyle
- If another pregnancy is an option for you, give yourself time to recover first, both physically and emotionally
- Accept and welcome the times when you feel less sad and begin to enjoy life again. They don't mean that you no longer care, or that you have forgotten your baby
Following the death of a baby, there are sadly many practical issues which need to be addressed. The stillbirth charity Sands offers support and information designed to help parents in the aftermath of their baby's death. Here is a summary of some of the things you may need to think about.
Registering your baby's death
- Babies who were born alive at any stage of pregnancy and then died, and babies who were born after 24 weeks of pregnancy and showed no signs of life, must by law be registered by the registrar of births and deaths. They must also be formally buried or cremated. You can decide how you wish to have the funeral or ceremony. Take time to think about what would be the right way for you to say goodbye.
Deciding on a post mortem
- A post mortem examination of your baby's body and of the placenta (afterbirth) may help to find out why your baby has died. Research suggests that post mortems find significant information about the cause of a baby's death in 60–80% of cases. A post mortem may also discover whether there was a problem that could affect future pregnancies. More information from Sands.
Getting a copy of your medical notes
- Some parents find it helpful to have a copy of the mother's pregnancy notes, perhaps as a record of their baby's life. If there is anything you find confusing or illegible in your notes, ask staff at the maternity unit to explain. Only the mother can apply for these notes. She can do this by writing to the NHS Trust or maternity unit where her baby died. There may be costs associated with photocopying and postage. For more information about getting a copy of your medical notes, go to NHS Choices.
Rights and benefits
- The rights and benefits to which bereaved parents may be entitled are complicated and depend on many things, including the length of the pregnancy, whether your baby was stillborn or lived for a short time after birth, whether you are employed, and your earnings before the birth. It may seem strange and perhaps upsetting to think about claiming beneﬁts when your baby has died. However, many bereaved families ﬁnd themselves facing unexpected ﬁnancial strain, so it is important to ﬁnd out about all the beneﬁts to which you may be entitled. Find out more from Sands.
- It's important to attend a six-week postnatal check-up to check the mother's physical recovery, and this can also be a chance to discuss how you and your family are coping. If you have a post mortem, you will also need an appointment to discuss the results of this with a consultant. Be prepared that the information this provides may not be able to answer all the questions you have. Sometimes there is no clear reason why a baby died.
Returning to work
- The decision about when to go back to work may depend on how you are feeling, your physical health, finances, and work-related factors. If your baby was stillborn after 24 weeks, or died after birth, you are entitled to maternity leave and pay. Fathers or partners may also be entitled to one or two weeks' leave. Speak to your employer about what your options are – how much time you can take, if you could perhaps start back at work part time at some point, or do some work from home, if that's possible.
Some people don't want to think about work at this time, while others appreciate having a distraction and a return to routine. Try not to rush into anything and consider the options.
- You may also wish to consider how to broach the subject with your colleagues – whether you ask a boss or another team member to inform people, or send an email in advance of your return explaining the situation and how you feel about discussing it. This will help both you and others to prepare for the return.
See Sands' information for employers on helping a bereaved parent return to work.
Emotional support for parents
Everyone grieves differently and there is no right or wrong way to grieve. Each person needs different types of support and this can change over time. Some people may be happy to talk, others might take comfort from quietly reading about others' experiences, while some may prefer to meet face to face and share their story.
Sands is dedicated to providing emotional support and information right from the early hours after a baby's death, through to the weeks, months and years ahead. Sands' bereavement support services for parents include: a telephone helpline; an online forum; Sands Support Groups; and a wide range of support literature covering the topics detailed above and many more.
You can also find discussions and support on Mumsnet's bereavement Talk boards. Each parent's experience of a baby's death is unique but there will be many shared thoughts and emotions. It can be comforting to talk to others or hear their experiences.
- See also: Supporting someone after the death of a baby
- Talk to others who have experienced stillbirth on Talk
Sands is the stillbirth and neonatal death charity operating throughout the UK, supporting anyone affected by the death of a baby and promoting research to reduce the loss of babies' lives.
Last updated: over 1 year ago