For most parents and families pregnancy is a happy time filled with joyful anticipation and exciting plans for the future. When a baby dies, families lose their dreams for a future with their child and they experience immesaurable heartbreak. Parents may wonder if their feelings are normal and how long they will last. They may also need to make some difficult decisions at a time of great distress.
What is a stillbirth or newborn death?
The definition of stillbirth is the birth of a baby who shows no signs of life after a pregnancy of at least 20 weeks gestation or weighing 400 grams or more. A baby may have died during late pregnancy (called intrauterine death). More unusually, a baby may have died during labour or birth (called intrapartum death).
Stillbirth is uncommon, but unfortunately, it is not rare. In Australia 1 in 120 births will be a stillbirth or a newborn death.
A newborn death (also known as neonatal death) is one that occurs in the first 28 days after birth.
What causes a baby to be stillborn?
We don’t always know why a baby dies but there are a range of problems known to either increase the risk of or be a cause of stillbirth. The following are some of the commonly reported risk factors for and causes of stillbirth in developed country settings like Australia:
Congenital anomalies: These describe conditions where the development of the baby has been affected and are present from conception or early in pregnancy. They may involve problems with chromosomes or important structures such as the brain, heart, spinal cord or kidneys.
Premature birth: 7% of women in Australia deliver their baby preterm. Although the majority of preterm babies now do well with modern obstetric and neonatal care, if the birth is extremely early, the baby can be too immature to survive and can be stillborn. Underlying reasons for preterm birth are not well understood but include infection and maternal medical conditions necessitating earlier delivery.
Problems with the placenta or cord: A variety of issues may lead to placental problems including conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure. These can impair placental development and mean the placenta is unable to nourish the baby and can result in stillbirth. Placental abruption is a relatively common cause of stillbirth and occurs if there is bleeding between the placenta and the wall of the womb which can acutely reduce blood supply to the baby. Rarer placental problems such as vasa praevia and fetomaternal haemorrhage can also affect blood supply to the baby. Cord “accidents” are often implicated in stillbirth but the diagnosis should be made with caution as cord problems are often seen in healthy liveborn babies. A baby's death should not be attributed to a cord accident unless there is both evidence of true obstruction and exclusion of other problems.
Fetal growth restriction: This term refers to babies that do not reach their full growth potential. This is associated with a significant increase in risk for stillbirth with up to half of babies who are stillborn being smaller than expected. It can be secondary to impaired placental function, chromosomal problems with the baby, smoking and maternal medical conditions such as high blood pressure. It can be very difficult to diagnose these at risk babies during routine antenatal care.
Maternal medical conditions: Pre-existing medical conditions are associated with increased risks of stillbirth. Commonly reported conditions are diabetes, renal disease, thyroid disorders, cardiac disease, systemic lupus erythematosus and obstetric cholestasis. Although regular antenatal care can help reduce the risk of stillbirth, sadly stillbirth can still occur.
Information is from The Stillbirth Foundation
Sometimes, in order to process what has happened, you have to come to terms with and acknowledge that it actually happened. If you try to pretend it never happened and avoid any contact with your baby, you may be left with deep regrets in the future. We respect your right to make your own decisions but also offer the following thoughts and suggestions from our own experiences and those of other families whose babies have died.
Naming your baby
If you have not already selected a name for your baby, it could help you both to choose a name to give your son or daughter. Your baby is a real person and a part of your family. It may feel easier to include and acknowledge your baby with your family and friends if you can call them by their name. You may choose the name you thought you would use before you found out your baby died, or you may choose another name altogether. The decision is up to you and your partner.
Seeing and holding your baby
Studies have shown that parents who are able to see and hold their baby are potentially able to begin their grieving process sooner than those who do not. It helps parents to realise that their baby was a real person.
In previous generations, parents were rarely given a choice and they were discouraged from holding and seeing their babies. The babies were taken away by well-meaning medical staff who thought it would do the mother more harm than good to see the baby. Thankfully today, times have changed and most people who have a baby die value the precious time they were able to spend holding their baby.
Facing death when you should be welcoming a new life is tragic and heartbreaking. You may also be afraid of seeing your baby and scared of being overwhelmed by your emotions when you hold your baby for the first time. Both of these reactions are understandable and normal. These feelings are an important part of the experience of meeting your baby and the very beginning of the grieving and healing process.
Help and Support
Find more information about stillbirth and newborn death in our brochures.
Our Volunteer Parent Supporters are available 24/7. Sands volunteers offer a real sense of understanding and hope; they too have been through the devastating loss of a baby in the past.
Our helpline is available by dialling 1300 0 72637