It’s devastating to lose a baby in this way. Here we explain what happens following stillbirth and what support there is to help you cope.
Stillbirth is when a baby dies before they are born or during labour, at more than 24 weeks of pregnancy (NHS Choices, 2018a).
It's devastating when a baby dies. You and your partner are likely to feel a range of emotions that come and go unpredictably. Emotions can include disbelief, anger, guilt and grief (NHS Choices, 2018b).
Try to remember there is support available – you don't have to go through this alone. You can talk to your family and friends, your GP, midwife or health visitor, or other parents who have lost a baby.
The charity Stillbirth and Neonatal Death, or Sands for short, has a helpline that can offer support and information. It can also put you in touch with people who have been through a similar experience: 0808 164 3332.
Following a stillbirth
If your baby has died, you might be able to wait for labour to start naturally or your labour may need to be induced (NHS Choices, 2018a). If your health is at risk, the baby may need to be delivered as soon as possible. It's rare for a stillborn baby to be delivered by caesarean section (NHS Choices, 2018a). A bereavement support officer or bereavement midwife will act as a point of contact for other healthcare professionals (NHS, 2018a).
After a stillbirth, decisions about what to do next are very personal. Some parents want to see and hold their baby. Parents will be given some quiet time with their baby if they would like (NHS Choices, 2018b).
Some parents have found a cuddle cot helpful. This is a specialist piece of bereavement care equipment with a cooling system which gives parents the chance to spend more time with their baby to grieve (Sands, 2016a). But not all hospitals will have this equipment.
You can also take photographs of your baby. You could also collect mementos such as a lock of hair, foot prints or hand prints, or the blanket your baby was wrapped in at birth. You might also want to name your baby, but not everyone does this and it's entirely your choice (NHS Choices, 2018b).
Following a stillbirth, a number of tests are offered to find the cause of the stillbirth. These results may help to avoid problems in any future pregnancies (NHS Choices, 2018). But it’s also possible that the cause of death won’t be found. The tests that may be offered are:
- Blood tests to see whether the mother has pre-eclampsia, obstetric cholestasis (a liver disease that can develop during pregnancy) or, rarely, diabetes.
- Specialist examination of the umbilical cord, membranes and placenta.
- Testing for infection through urine, blood or cell samples.
- Thyroid function tests.
- Genetic tests on a small sample of umbilical cord to see whether your baby had problems like Down’s syndrome or Edward’s syndrome.
(NHS Choices, 2018b)
A post-mortem of the baby’s body might provide more information about the causes of stillbirth. This might be important if you plan to become pregnant in the future.
Your baby can’t have a post-mortem without your written consent. The healthcare professional asking for consent can give you more information on why a post-mortem is needed. It’s your decision whether you want your baby to have a post-mortem (NHS Choices, 2018).
Saying goodbye to your baby
Some parents have a funeral, memorial or their own way of saying goodbye to their baby. This may be an important part of helping you come to terms with your loss (Sands, 2016b).
The hospital might offer to arrange a funeral, burial or cremation. This may be free of charge or there might be a fee. Otherwise, you could choose to organise a funeral, burial or cremation yourself (Sands, 2016b).
A bereavement support officer or bereavement midwife might be able to explain choices you can make about the baby's funeral (NHS, 2018a). The Sands charity has a family support pack that can help you through this difficult time.
Registering the birth
When a baby is stillborn after 24 weeks of pregnancy, the stillbirth must be registered in the stillbirth register. The process for registering a stillbirth combines features of both birth and death registration.
Stillbirths have to be registered within 42 days in England and Wales, 21 days in Scotland and up to a year in Northern Ireland. You can name your baby in the register (Gov.uk, 2018).
Following a stillbirth, a bereavement support officer or bereavement midwife might be available to help with any paperwork that needs to be completed (NHS, 2018a).
Maternity and paternity leave, as well as statutory maternity and paternity pay are available following a stillbirth (Gov.uk, 2018).
Pregnancy after stillbirth
A pregnancy following a stillbirth should be classed as high risk. This means you will get extra care and extra scans to keep an eye on your baby’s growth and development. You are likely to be under the care of a consultant rather than midwife-led care.
The number of extra scans and appointments you get will depend on your doctor and the cause (if known) of your baby’s death. If you would like more scans or appointments than the number you are offered, ask for them (Tommy’s, 2017).
The charity Tommy’s operates a specialist clinic for families who are pregnant again after a stillbirth. The Tommy’s Rainbow Clinic provides specialist care and support for parents who have experienced stillbirth or neonatal death (Tommy’s, 2018).
Some evidence suggests that a previous stillbirth slightly increases the risk of a subsequent stillbirth (Surkan et al, 2004; Gordon et al, 2012): if the absolute risk of a pregnancy ending in stillbirth is approximately 0.5%, this risk increases to 0.76% to 0.86% following a previous stillbirth (Gordon et al, 2012; Surkan et al, 2004). Stillbirth can be caused by a complex set of causes, so this association is likely to be due to the re-occurrence of underlying causes, rather than the previous stillbirth itself.
This page was last reviewed in May 2018.
Our support line offers practical and emotional support with feeding your baby and general enquiries for parents, members and volunteers: 0300 330 0700.
If your baby has died or someone close to you has had a stillbirth there is support available.
Sands (Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Charity) offers a helpline for parents, families and healthcare professionals affected by stillbirth: 0808 164 3332. The team are available to speak to from 9.30am to 5.30pm, Monday to Friday, and 6pm to 10pm, Tuesday and Thursday evenings.
Sands also operates local support groups run by bereaved parents and family members. For more information and to find the group nearest to you please visit https://www.sands.org.uk/support/how-we-offer-support/sands-groups.
The charity Tommy’s offers a helpline run by midwives who have experience in talking about pregnancy loss and have had bereavement training. Call 0800 0147 800, Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm.
The Tommy’s website has information on what to expect when giving birth to a stillborn baby, spending time with and creating memories with a stillborn baby and coping with grief following a stillbirth. For more information please visit their website at https://www.tommys.org/pregnancy-information/pregnancy-complications/pregnancy-loss/stillbirth-information-and-support.
The charity Cruse Bereavement Care offers a helpline, face-to-face and group support following the death of someone close. Their helpline is open Monday to Friday 9.30am – 5pm on 0808 808 1677. Face-to-face and group support is delivered by trained bereavement volunteers across England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
For more information please visit https://www.cruse.org.uk/bereavement-services/get-help.
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