When your baby is stillborn: (heartbreaking) stuff you need to know

We never want anyone to have to go through this but, if you are, here's some wise advice from mums who've been there before you

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“I gave birth… on 12 February 2016 and he was just perfect but was sleeping.

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“This was the most difficult thing I have ever done.

“Now, a few days after, I just can’t stop crying. How do you get through the pain and feelings of emptiness?

“I look at my now flattish stomach, longing for him to be back inside me, so I can protect him. Any advice?”

So starts a discussion thread on our MadeForMums Chat forum, posted by ‘Bornsleeping’, following the stillbirth of her little boy.

Bornsleeping received overwhelming support from the other mums on our forum who have, sadly, experienced the same thing, and who have been speaking very openly on a subject that’s so little discussed.

And they’ve been using the thread to share advice – both on a practical level (what happens when you go to the hospital to have a baby you know will be stillborn or what will happen if your baby is born sleeping) and on a more emotional level (how to deal with the feelings you have during and after the birth, and beyond).

And now they want us to share their hard-won wisdom more widely – so others who have to face the overwhelmingly difficult sadness of a stillbirth can find some information, help, and maybe a little comfort in their words.

If you’re reading this before or after your baby’s stillbirth, we’re so sorry for your loss and we wish you strength. We hope what follows helps in some small way…

1. You won’t always know what’s gone wrong

About half of all the estimated 3,600 stillbirths every year in the UK, about half are linked to some kind of complication with the placenta. But it’s surprisingly common for parents who have a stillborn baby never to get a simple explanation of what exactly went wrong – and why.

Phillisda told us: “I went into labour on Friday evening and gave birth to my beautiful boy at 2.13pm Saturday. He was also born sleeping after we lost his heartbeat and they just couldn’t get him out quickly enough. 

“He was born at 27 weeks. Based on all the scans, a normal healthy boy. I had a problem-free, uncomplicated 1st pregnancy, so we are completely at a loss to why this happened.”

2. Your bump might change shape if your baby dies in the womb

“I’m finding it tough that I still have him inside of me and yet I can tell he’s gone.,” says Chamilto. “My belly has dropped and sags. I can only imagine it’s because he’s now floppy?”

As hard to this is to deal with, most of our mums who’d experienced this said they’d have like to known that this might happen. 

3. You may need to be induced – and will have contractions

If your baby dies in the womb, your doctor will probably want to induce labour. This will happen soon after you’ve been told that your baby has died – but probably not straightaway. This might be good (you have time to absorb the news) or not so good (you don’t want to wait around).

Chamilto told us: “I am 38 weeks and found out today that my little boy Jacob’s heart has stopped. I’m going to hospital on Friday to be induced.”

After the induction process started, she added: “I don’t think it’s going to take long now. I have already started having contractions and they’re getting strong already – every 4 mins but they only last a minute.”

4. You’ll get pain relief for the labour

Labour is painful, whether you’re giving birth to a live baby or a sleeping one. But there will be help on hand to deal with the physical distress you might be going through, as well as the emotional stuff.

Born sleeping told us: “I have to say the midwifes I had were amazing. I had morphine for the physical pain but, emotionally, my partner and the midwifes were my rock.”

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5. They’ll weigh your baby

One of our mums, waiting to give birth, was curious to know if this could happen.

The answers is yes, they will weigh your little one. Mum Phillisda tells us they weighed and measured her little one when he was born. And Nalc12 agreed: “Yes they will certainly weigh him for you.”

6. You’ll get to hold your baby

“The experience was also just beautiful. I got to see, hold, touch my boy,” Born sleeping tells us.

“It was a moment I will never forget. Having the opportunity to have him sleep in his crib in the bed with his Mummy and Daddy was just wonderful.”

7. A cuddle cot can give you longer with your baby

While not all hospitals have these available, if you hospital has one, you might want to take advantage. A cuddle cot is essentially a refrigerated bassinet that keeps your baby at a cooler temperature, so you can spend longer with him or her.

We recently shared the story of a mum who did get to use a cuddle cot, and said, “I got to stay with my son for 3 days.

“I got to dress him, got to wash him and got to stare at him for hours like any other mother would. Being able to do that made a dramatic difference.”

8. You’ll want to take in an outfit for your baby – including a nappy

As you’ll probably want to have some photos taken of your little one, you might want to choose a nice outfit to take in with you for the birth.

Chamilto says: “We’ve chosen the clothes we want him to wear. I packed a nappy. Is that weird? I just feel weird dressing him without a nappy on.”

And, actually, including a nappy is a really good idea, as Nalc12 explains: “They will want one on him anyway as his bladder/bowel will empty at some point. Plus, like you feel, you wouldn’t dress a baby without a nappy.”

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9. You may want to start a memory box

Lots of our mums have said how much creating a memory box can help them to deal with what they’re going through. This can include photos of your baby, and their blanket, for example. Often, someone at the hospital will come in and offer to take moulds of your baby’s feet and hands, too.

Phillisda said: “We got a special pack, that was a bit of a memory box, with some candles and things in it – which I still have.

“They will take your baby away if you want (we did, as I was so ill, so we let them do this for us) and wash and dress him and do the photos/ prints etc.”

And Nalc12 said: “I had a memory box from Sands with a variety of bits in it. It was very comforting given the circumstances.”

10. You’ll get to have a funeral for your baby

“Any baby born after 24 weeks has either to be buried or cremated, and you will get to have a funeral,” Phillisda told us. “You can either do this privately or often the hospital will arrange it for you.”

Amy 17 said: “On 6 August, we laid her to rest at our local church and it was a lovely service.

“I felt like I could move on after that and that it gave me peace of mind knowing where our baby was.”

11. Your baby’s death must be registered

If you’re married to the baby’s dad, either you or him can register your little one’s death. Alternatively it can be done by someone who was present at the stillbirth. More details can be found on the gov.uk website.

Nalc12 told us that: “It actually felt good to register his death. As difficult as it was, it was nice for him to be registered and acknowledged – and the lady doing it actually started crying, which I was very touched by.”

12. You may want to show photos of your baby to your friends

Photos will usually be taken for you at the hospital and, of course, you can take them yourself, too, or get a loved one to do it.

For some mums, it’s important to acknowledge your little one’s birth and to share it with others.

Nalc12 told us: “I’ve shared a photo of Harley with a few close friends and I do also feel this helps.

“I’m so proud of my little boy. My arms ache for him.”

13. Take time to recover but know that returning to routine might help

When you experience a stillbirth, there’s no doubt that the world and life as you knew it has changed for ever. But some of our mums found that, in time, getting back to a familiar routine proved helpful.

For example, Born sleeping told us: “Back at work properly now and actually having a bit of a structure and normality in my life is quite positive.”

If you’re not ready for work, though, then do give yourself time; it’s important to figure out what’s best for you.

14. Seeing pregnant women will be tough

Inevitably, there will be things that didn’t make you cry before that will now stir up poignant feelings of loss.

“What I am finding now is that everywhere I look I see babies or pregnant women. I am so much more aware of them,” says Born sleeping.

“I went into John Lewis today after work to get my friend’s new baby a pressie and had to leave.

“It brought back memories of me being pregnant, and looking at what I might purchase made me feel tearful.”

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And Nalc12 said: “I completely agree with you about pregnant women / babies. I went into Boots and got stuck behind two women with babies discussing baby things and I nearly had to leave.

“No matter where I go, they are there. I went for a coffee with my mum and there was a woman breastfeeding a newborn boy and my heart sank.

“I just wish so much things could have been different but I know it can’t be. I miss being pregnant…”

15. Even though you don’t know quite how, you will get through it

Lots of the mums on our forum acknowledge that while the pain of having a stillbirth can be unbearable, they do cope, and they are keen to let others know that they will too.

“An inner strength from somewhere does come,” says Nalc12, “and even though a lot of time is spent on autopilot, your body manages to do what it has to.”

Amy 17 adds: “All I  I can say is, time will heal. Things will get better.

“You will never forget your baby and the experience that you went through but it will make you a stronger person.”

More about stillbirth

Stillbirth is the term used when a baby is born dead at 24 weeks or after (before then, it’s called a miscarriage). Sometimes, the baby dies during the labour and birth process; sometimes, the baby dies in the womb, prior to labour – and then, even though your baby has died, you still have to give birth.

While stillbirth isn’t common, it’s not as rare as you’d hope: it happens to 1 in every 200 babies in the UK.

Reasons for a baby dying in the womb vary widely but can include infection, problems with the placenta or the fact that for some reason your baby has not developed its vital organs properly.

If you’re going through this, or know someone who is, you may want to get help by visiting the Sands (stillbirth and neonatal death charity) website.

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