It’s something none of us ever think will happen. Stillbirth, something that sends shivers down the achy spines of pregnant women. But stillbirth does happen, in fact every day, nine babies never get to open their eyes and see the wonderful world they were meant to live in. Nine sets of parents return home from hospital, empty handed and broken hearted.
I know how these women feel, you see, because the unthinkable happened to me. Thirty-three weeks into my third pregnancy, I experienced a placental abruption. My placenta, my baby’s lifeline, burst away from the side of my uterus, causing me to haemorrhage and starve my little boy of oxygen.
Getting to grips with the fact that your child, for whom you have bought a buggy, set up a cot and started collecting baby clothes, will never be a part of your family is something that is nigh on impossible to adjust to. Three years on, not a day goes by without me thinking about my third child, who we called Willem, the one I never got to know. I wonder what he’d look like and how he would have fitted in to our happy, hectic, loving family.
In the aftermath of our tragedy, I was lucky enough to be enveloped by the love of my friends and family. I was swamped with letters, cards and emails and every time anyone reached out to me, it felt like I got just a little bit stronger. I felt less alone. I went to see a counsellor, one of those women whose wisdom, compassion and ability to decode the baffling habits of the mind made it feel like a privilege to be in her company.
But I needed to do something more. I needed Willem’s legacy to be about more than just his loss. I needed to feel like there was a reason for that awful day in August. And then I found Tommy’s. I’d heard of them but never realised exactly what they did, until one bleak spring day I found myself on a train heading for Manchester, to visit their stillbirth research unit.
As I sat down with Professor Alex Heazell, I realised I was in the company of someone quite remarkable. Here was a man, clever as a fox, hell bent on working out why the UK has one of the highest stillbirth rates in the developed world. I spent a day discovering how the research unit works, what the long-term research goals are and how their Rainbow Clinic has reduced the incidence of stillbirth in the Greater Manchester area by 30%.
Returning home, I felt uplifted and more positive than I had done in months and resolute that I wanted to help this charity. Last month I ran my first half marathon. I raised nearly £12,000 for Tommy’s and this week I’ve been reminded how well this money will be spent.
Today, Professor Alex Heazell has made, what we think, will be a breakthrough in the fight against stillbirth. A study of nearly 1000 women has shown that mothers who go to sleep on their backs in their third trimester double their risk of stillbirth. For years pregnant women have been told to sleep on their sides but until now we thought this was more for their own benefit rather than their baby’s. To get technical – a major artery runs down the front of the spine and as the uterus gets heavier, it puts pressure on this artery, reducing the blood flow to the vital organs. Having thought this predominantly only affected the mother, it appears that this affects babies more profoundly than we think.
The crucial piece of advice is that it’s the going to sleep position that is the most important. The position you fall asleep in is the one you spend most time in while sleeping, so women who wake up on their backs shouldn’t worry, just turn back onto their sides and go back to sleep.
It is estimated that if we make sure every pregnant woman knows to go to sleep on her side (the research doesn’t show if either side is safer than the other), it will drastically reduce our unacceptably high stillbirth rate. So, this is something we really need to shout about. Tell your friends, even if they’re not pregnant; they might well be one day and this could save the life of their little ones.
This particular piece of information wouldn’t have saved my son’s life. We don’t know why my abruption happened, but I’d put money on the fact that these dynamos at Tommy’s, who simply refuse to give up, one day might have the answer.
To hear Marina Fogle in conversation with Dr Chiara Hunt about this study, its findings and advice for pregnant women, download The Parent Hood podcast from iTunes. It’s free to download – simply search for The Parent Hood in your podcast app or iTunes.
Read more about the research and Tommy’s #SleeponSide campaign at www.tommys.org/sleep