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, 2021a). It's devastating when a baby dies, both for parents and other family members (NHS, 2021b).
Finding out your baby has died
If your carers think that your baby has died before birth, you will be offered a scan to check for the baby’s heartbeat. You will be offered support and have the options explained. If you're on your own in the hospital, you can ask the staff to contact someone to come and be by your side (NHS, 2021b).
A lot of people find themselves feeling guilty or anxious after their babies die. And some may get depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (NHS, 2021b).
It can feel lonely but 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.
How and where you might give birth
If your baby has died, it might be possible to wait for labour to start naturally and you could go home (NHS, 2021b). Medicine may be used to prepare your body for labour, which can take up to 48 hours. After this time regular blood tests would be recommended.
If there are concerns about your health, your carers might suggest inducing labour sooner (NHS, 2021b). A bereavement support officer or bereavement midwife will act as a point of contact for the parent and other healthcare professionals (NHS, 2021b).
It is the parents’ choice as to whether the birth takes place in hospital or at home (NHS, 2021b).
What happens after a stillbirth
After a stillbirth, decisions about what to do next are very personal. Some parents want to see and hold their baby. Parents may want to have some quiet time with their baby (NHS, 2021b).
Waiting for natural labour can cause the baby to deteriorate in the womb, which might affect how they look after birth. But many parents take photographs or make mementos such as foot or hand prints or the blanket the 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, 2021b).
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 (Smith et al, 2020). You can ask if your hospital has this type of equipment available.
After a stillbirth your body may start will producing milk, which could be uncomfortable and upsetting. Medicines can stop the breasts producing milk although they may not be appropriate for someone who has pre-eclampsia. Options can be discussed with healthcare professionals to let the milk supply dry up without medication if preferred (NHS, 2021b).
Tests for what caused the stillbirth
Following a stillbirth, a number of tests are offered to look for the cause of the stillbirth. In many cases the cause won’t be found. The tests aim to help to avoid problems in any future pregnancies but it is up to you if you would like them done (NHS, 2021b). 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.
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, 2021b).
There will be a hospital review of the care provided to you during pregnancy and birth. The hospital will ask you if you would like to share your perspective or ask any questions and will discuss their findings with you (Sands, 2021).
Saying goodbye to your baby
If your baby was stillborn at 24 weeks or later, or died after birth, you are legally required to have a burial or cremation for them, although not necessarily a funeral. Although there is no legal requirement, some parents have a funeral, memorial or their own way of saying goodbye to their baby. This may be an important part of dealing with your loss and an opportunity to say goodbye to your baby (Sands, 2016).
The hospital might offer to arrange a funeral, but you may need to let them know before you are discharged. Some hospitals only offer this for babies who died before birth. It may be free of charge or there might be a fee. Otherwise, you could choose to organise a funeral, burial or cremation yourself (Sands, 2016).
A bereavement support officer or bereavement midwife might be able to explain choices you can make about the baby's funeral (NHS, 2021b). The charity Sands has a bereavement support book 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, 2021).
Following a stillbirth, a bereavement support officer or bereavement midwife might be available to help with any paperwork that needs to be completed (NHS, 2021b).
Maternity and paternity leave, as well as statutory maternity and paternity pay are available following a stillbirth (Gov.uk, 2021).
Pregnancy after stillbirth
A pregnancy following a stillbirth will be classed as high risk. This means there will be extra care and extra scans offered to keep an eye on the new baby’s growth and development. It is more likely for someone in this situation to be offered 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 or fewer scans or appointments than the number you are offered, speak to your healthcare professional.
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, 2020).
Some evidence suggests that a previous stillbirth is associated with a slightly increased risk of a subsequent stillbirth (Surkan et al, 2004; Gordon et al, 2012). This association may be due to the re-occurrence of underlying causes, rather than the previous stillbirth itself and more research is needed to support families in this area (Wojcieszek et al, 2018).
This page was last reviewed in January 2022.
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.
Gordon A, Raynes-Greenow C, McGeechan K, Morris J, Jeffery H. (2012) Stillbirth risk in a second pregnancy. Obstetr Gynecol. 119(3):509-517. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1097/aog.0b013e31824781f8
NHS. (2021a) What happens if your unborn baby dies. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stillbirth/what-happens/ [Accessed 20th January 2022]
NHS. (2021b) Coping with stillbirth. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/coping-with-stillbirth [Accessed 20th January 2022]
Gov UK. (2021) Register a stillbirth. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/register-stillbirth [Accessed 20th January 2022]
Sands. (2016) Saying goodbye to your baby. Available at: https://www.sands.org.uk/sites/default/files/Saying%20Goodbye%20To%20Your%20Baby%20-%2006.07.16.pdf [Accessed 20th January 2022]
Sands. (2021) Understanding why your baby died. Available at: https://www.sands.org.uk/support-you/understanding-why-your-baby-died [Accessed 17th February 2022]
Smith P, Vasileiou K, Jordan A. (2020) Healthcare professionals’ perceptions and experiences of using a cold cot following the loss of a baby: a qualitative study in maternity and neonatal units in the UK Available at: https://doi.org/10.1186/s12884-020-02865-4
Surkan PJ, Stephansson O, Dickman PW, Cnattingius S. (2004) Previous preterm and small-for-gestational-age births and the subsequent risk of stillbirth. New Engl J Med. 350(8):777-785. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1056/NEJMoa031587
Tommy’s. (2020) The Rainbow Clinic. Available at: https://www.tommys.org/our-organisation/our-research/research-cause/sti… [Accessed 20th January 2022]
Wojcieszek A, Shepherd E, Middleton P, Lassi Z, Wilson T, Murphy M, et al. (2018) Care prior to and during subsequent pregnancies following stillbirth for improving outcomes. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 12(12):CD012203. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1002/14651858.CD012203.pub2
Register a stillbirth. https://www.gov.uk/register-stillbirth