Care of parents who experience the death of a baby has changed in recent years. There has been more of a move towards supporting those parents who wish to, to create memories with their baby. Many years ago stillborn babies were removed from their parents immediately after their birth. Sometimes their parents were not able to see their baby, didn’t name their baby or sometimes even know where their baby was buried.
I speak with many long ago bereaved parents whose heart’s still hurt, decades later. They still remember. They carry regret and longing in equal measure.
Fortunately, things have moved on. Understanding of bereavement within maternity care has improved. More research studies are helping to show what parents in your situation find helpful and what support may be needed.
It is now common for staff to offer the opportunity to see or hold a stillborn baby.
You may not yet have met your baby, perhaps you are reading this as you await labour, wondering what the “right” thing to do is. The honest answer is that there is no right and no wrong in this situation. The staff caring for you will honour your wishes, whatever you decide.
I have worked with, supported and spoken to thousands of bereaved parents. The majority of parents whose baby is stillborn (from 24weeks gestation) or born after 16 weeks gestation (miscarriage or live miscarriage) have spent some time with their baby. I have known very few parents regret this decision – even though it is distressing at the time.
There are some situations in which it may not be advisable or possible to see your baby, or situations where greater care may need to be taken. Babies born at earlier gestations are born in a more fragile condition, as are those who have spent a very long time inside your tummy after their death, before being born. It is not usually possible to see babies born via a surgically managed miscarriage, although it may be possible for you to give gifts, or be in the same area as your baby if you wish. If your baby has died suddenly at home, it may not be possible to see them immediately if there is an investigation.
Some parents that I speak to made the decision not to see their baby. Some felt frightened. Some were unwell immediately after the birth. Some were in shock and unable to make the decision. For many parents, they regret missing this opportunity and feel saddened by the choices they made at the time.
Some made the decision, following information, consideration and time and feel that it was the right choice for them. When parents have been supported to make the right decision for them, from a place of empowerment rather than fear, it appears that they carry much less regret. They remain comforted by their decision.
Although it is a difficult subject to write, talk and think about, I hope that making information available on this website allows you to consider the available options prior to the birth of your baby. In this section I will share some points which you might like to consider when making your decision and some suggestions. You can discuss your wishes with your family and your midwife/support team.
Things to consider:
What is right for you: In every moment we all make the best decision for us based on our experiences, our knowledge, our thoughts and feelings. Sometimes we take into account the opinions of other people to help us make a decision. In the case of deciding to spend time with your baby it is really important to figure out what you need. You will be less likely to have regrets if you can act in accordance with your needs. This might mean exploring the options and deciding on the path which you feel will hurt the least, be the easiest, or leave you with the least regrets.
Differing Viewpoints: Sometimes the emotions of the situation, the fact that it is unexpected and your cultural beliefs can result slightly different viewpoints on what is right, wrong or acceptable. You might find that you feel unable to see and hold your baby but your partner or parents want to. Or any combination of viewpoints in the people around you. It isn’t the time to argue it out, to try to get everyone to agree. Sometimes the best thing to do is to determine and respect each others wishes and support the decisions each individual makes.
For example someone may prefer to see their baby when they have been bathed and dressed, where as someone else may prefer to hold them when they are warm from their body heat. If you feel now that you might not see or hold your baby – or later find that you cannot, you may be able to find someone who wishes to see and hold your baby, such as a midwife, chaplain or funeral director or a family member. You could consider asking them to make some memories for you, or to give your baby a gift or message. You might later wish to know that your baby was cuddled, cared for and talked to. It may bring you comfort in the time ahead.
Minutes, hours, days: Sadly there is often a time limit imposed upon the amount of time you are able to spend with your baby. This might be guided by the hospital facilities, for example they may need the room for another family. Sometimes this is determined by the condition of your baby and the speed with which they deteriorate. It is very difficult to say in advance just how long your baby will remain with you. For example, when Finley was born I had reached full term in my pregnancy and he died minutes before being born by caesarean section. This meant that he was born in a robust condition, his skin was less fragile and the changes he went through were much slower. He stayed with us for a few days, and we were also able to see him before the funeral.
If your baby has been in your tummy for a little while before being born (2+ days), their skin will be more fragile and the physiological changes will occur more quickly. If your baby is born at an earlier gestation then the effects will be more exaggerated. Very small babies may only be able to remain with you for a matter of hours. The use of a Cuddle Cot can help to slow down the changes by cooling your baby’s body down, allowing you more time.
Many hospitals understand that parents may initially be very overwhelmed and choose not to see and hold their baby. It is possible to change your mind if you wish. Most hospitals are happy to arrange for you to meet with the Chaplain or a midwife and see your baby at a point before the funeral happens. Some parents choose to return to the hospital several times before the funeral.
It is useful to remember that even if it is no longer possible to see or hold your baby, you can still be near them. You can sit with their coffin, or casket at the Chapel of Rest, or hospital, with the lid on, or a sensitive arrangement of clothing and blankets. You can speak to them, say anything you wish to or just be close to them.
Anxiety: Many parents report that they worried greatly during this time. You may feel worried about many things. If possible you could discuss your worries with your midwife, the hospital or your family. When considering seeing and holding your baby you might be worried about some specific things. You might be wondering whether it is “right” to hold a dead body – as I said before there is no right or wrong. However, this is still your baby, you are likely to still experience feelings of love, protection. Your parental instincts are unlikely to disappear. It is difficult as nowadays we don’t deal much with death. The funeral directors and professionals take care of everything, so this may be your first experience like this. It is difficult to know what the social and cultural norm is for situations such as this.
Many parents report feeling worried about what their baby may look like. Frequently they are surprised and report that they had imagined something different. You may wish to visit www.stillbirthday.com . They have a section of their website which displays images of baby’s born at different gestations. It may be helpful to prepare in this way.
Some parents have asked midwives or family to take a photograph of their baby when they are born, to show them first. This can be particularly helpful if your baby has an abnormality, or is in a fragile condition. It allows you to become accustomed to their appearance in a more gentle way, whilst deciding what you will do.
Where and When: You may like to think about when and where you would like to hold your baby after giving birth. You can ask to hold your baby skin to skin (after they have been wiped if you prefer). Some parents are supported to hold their baby against their back skin on skin, immediately after birth, if they have chosen not to see their baby. This allows them to cradle them, without seeing them. Holding your baby skin to skin can be comforting as they will be warm just after birth, before cooling fairly quickly.
You might prefer the midwives to care for your baby, drying and dressing them before you meet them. If you select this, you could ask midwives to video these moments so that you can see them at a later date. You might also like to consider whether you would like your baby to be handed to you to cradle, or laid on a pillow, pad or in a basket near to you.
If there was one piece of advice I’d give, it is that sadly there is no rewind button. You don’t get to go back and make different choices. There are no second chances. This time will pass very quickly and although I wish you didn’t have to meet your baby under these circumstances, I am glad that you will have this chance to be together.