News of a baby born stillborn is always a shock, it is always heartbreaking. Thankfully, stillbirth is not common.
What is stillbirth?
A baby is stillborn if they die in the womb after the 24th week of gestation (before 24 weeks is classed as miscarriage, or late miscarriage). Following the death of a baby in utero, the mother will need to decide whether to have labour induced, to wait for labour to start naturally, or to have a Caesarean section. Unless there is a reason concerning mum's health why the baby should be delivered quickly, it's not a decision that needs to be made immediately.
Why do babies die in the womb?
We don't always know. Parents of stillborn babies are given the option of whether to have a post mortem carried out. In some cases, an examination can determine the cause of death (common causes are overlooked birth defects, or problems with the placenta or umbilical chord), and that knowledge might offer some comfort to grieving parents.
However, in approximately half of cases, no reason for the baby's death can be found. Obviously, something went wrong, but usually there is no way a mum could have known about it or prevented it.
A stillbirth is very rarely thought to be caused by something mum did or did not do.
Is it likely to happen to me?
Each year in the UK, around 4,200 babies are stillborn – that is around one in every 200. So stillbirth is not common. Some women are considered higher risk than others; age, weight, lifestyle and previous pregnancy complications are all factors.
What can I do to reduce my risk?
If you are a 'high risk' mum-to-be, then your antenatal care should reflect that; you'll be seen more frequently by your midwife and have checks more often. It's especially important for high risk women to attend all their antenatal appointments.
Most women are 'low risk', but every mum-to-be can maximise her chances for delivering a healthy baby by following sensible advice. You should not smoke, drink alcohol or use drugs. You should eat healthily and avoid foods from which you might contact salmonella or listeria.
You should never ignore abdominal pain or bleeding – seek medical advice immediately.
And you should remain aware of your baby's movements – if you ever feel worried that your baby has stopped moving, or has started moving less frequently, go and get things checked out.
I have lost my baby, where can I get help?
You should receive a lot of help and support from your midwifery team and the hospital. Every mum or dad reacts differently when they lose a baby – you might feel shocked and numb, angry, guilty or resentful, as well as terribly sad – and the professionals around you should understand this. There is no right or wrong way to grieve.
Naturally, the people closest to you will want to help and offer their support too – but they do not always know how to. If you need space, ask for it. If you need help, ask for that too.
You might find some comfort in speaking to someone who has gone through the same experience as you. Sands (Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Charity) is dedicated to supporting people who have been affected by the death of a baby or babies (including grandparents).
Their website is full of information and advice, and they also offer a confidential helpline on 020 7436 5881. Many of the people who work there have been affected by the death of a baby. If you don't want to talk, you can email firstname.lastname@example.org
Cruse Bereavement Care has local support groups up and down the country, offering help, advice and counselling services. They also have a national helpline: adults can call 0844 477 9400; people under the age of 18 can call 0808 808 1677.
Trying for another baby
In almost all cases, subsequent healthy pregnancies are possible after a stillbirth.
But making the decision to try for another baby can be a hard one. Some parents want to try again straight away, while others (and more frequently mums than dads) feel they want to wait, to have time to grieve for the baby they have lost, and to make sense of things a little before pouring their energy into a new pregnancy.
Don't let other people tell you what you should do either way. It is your decision whether to have another baby or not, whether it will be good for you and your family. You will reach your decision in your own time.
If no cause of death was found for your baby, and you do become pregnant again, you are likely to be considered high risk, and this means you will be monitored more closely. Many hospitals will put a sticker on your maternity notes which tells the midwives and doctors you have suffered a bereavement, and they will be sensitive to this.
You might feel very anxious during your pregnancy, particularly as you approach the time at which your previous pregnancy ended, but your midwife should reassure you and the additional checks you are receiving are a good thing. If you feel worried at any time, speak to your midwife (he or she really won't think you are being a nuisance) and ask if the maternity unit runs special drop-in sessions for parents who have previously lost a baby – many do.
While research continues to help move us towards a time when stillbirth is better understood, and therefore more preventable, it's important to remember that the vast majority of pregnancies are healthy.