Stillbirth: Surviving Emotionally

Stillbirth is one of the most devastating of losses, affecting over 25,000 families each year. Stillbirth touches families of all races, religion and socio-economic status. For many parents, stillbirth is a loss that hits unexpectedly. In fact, up to half of all stillbirths occur in pregnancies that had seemed problem-free.

With any loss, grief can come in many different ways. The initial shock and numbness will eventually fade to other very intense emotions. The grieving process is different for everyone, with the one common thread being a pain. Allowing yourself and others to experience this in individual ways can be vital to eventual healing.

What should I do if my baby has died?

As you are trying to cope with the heartbreaking news, you will also have to face an uncomfortable dilemma. If your baby has died before labor begins you will probably be given the choice of what type of birth you would prefer; this is not an easy decision to make. Giving birth naturally may give you a little more time to work through the shock and begin the grieving process.

How long can you keep a stillborn baby?

Generally, it is medically safe for the mother to continue carrying her baby until labor begins which is normally about 2 weeks after the baby has died. This lapse in time can have an effect on the baby’s appearance at delivery and it is best to be prepared for this.

Some women prefer to be induced as soon as possible because it is emotionally difficult for some women to think of carrying their deceased baby in the womb. If labor has not started after two weeks, induction would become necessary to avoid dangerous blood clotting. A cesarean is usually only recommended if complications arise during labor and delivery.

How will I recover physically after having a stillbirth?

After you give birth to a stillborn baby, your body needs time to heal as it would in any birthing situation. Your doctor will probably recommend taking it easy, to give your body time to heal. A few days after you get home from the hospital, your breasts may fill with milk. The milk will normally disperse within a few days, but your breasts may feel sore and tender for a while.

This experience can be upsetting because it is a reminder of your loss. Try taking a warm bath to ease the discomfort. You may continue to bleed off and on for a few weeks. If you continue to bleed beyond three weeks, have a fever, or cramping, it is important to contact your healthcare provider.

Saying hello, goodbye, and making memories:

After the tests are completed, you will usually have the choice to spend time alone with your baby. You can find comfort in looking at, touching, and talking to your baby. Most parents find it helpful to make memories of this precious time that will last a lifetime.

Here are a few ways you can make memories with your baby:

  • You can give your baby a bath and dress them in a special outfit. Before leaving the hospital you can take a piece of this clothing to have as a keepsake.
  • You can take pictures of your baby.
  • The hospital staff can give you an imprint of handprints and/or footprints.
  • You may want to take a lock of your baby’s hair.
  • It may seem odd at first but you can read a story or sing a lullaby to your baby.
  • If you would like, the nurse can record your baby’s measurements.
  • You probably have also named your baby by now. Be sure to tell the hospital staff as soon as possible so all documents can have your baby’s name listed.
  • You can have your baby christened or blessed while in the hospital.
  • A baptism certificate will also be given to you to keep.

You will be able to spend as much time as you need with your baby, but at some point, you will need to say goodbye. This will probably be one of the most challenging things to do because it is so final. Allow yourself to cry; expressing emotion is natural in the grieving process. Having the keepsakes will remind you that a part of your baby will always be with you.

What can I expect when I leave the hospital?

You normally will be allowed to leave the hospital when you are physically ready. Leaving the hospital may be filled with a mix of emotions. You may be feeling ready to get to the safety and security of your own home, but at the same time dealing with the anger and sadness of not having a baby to take home with you. Having a supportive family around can help you get through this. Some parents have found it helpful to have a family member move all the baby items into a spare room before they get home so that these can be gone through at a time when the parents feel ready.

What about my family members?

With the loss of your baby, your family members will also grieve. Your baby is someone’s granddaughter, brother, cousin, nephew or sister. It is important for your family members to spend time with the baby. This will help them come to terms with their loss. If you have other children, it is very important, to be honest with them about what has happened by using simple and honest explanations.

It is your decision whether you would like the children to see the baby. Ask for a Child Life Specialist at the hospital; these are trained professionals who can help you prepare your children for the heartbreaking news, and prepare them to see the baby if you wish.

How do I tell people about our loss?

Telling family members and friends can be emotionally draining and overwhelming. You may want to have one family member be “in charge” of telling others about what has happened, about funeral arrangements, and ways they can help.

What should I do about a funeral or memorial service?

A social worker or chaplain at the hospital can help you make funeral arrangements. Most funeral homes will provide a free coffin, burial or cremation for stillborn babies. Although there may be other expenses, this contribution will alleviate some of the financial strain. The date of the service will depend on when the hospital releases your baby. The length of the service, as well as the number of family members you want present, is entirely up to you. This may be very difficult for you, but also comforting to know your baby is at rest.

What should I do with the baby items?

The time will come when you are ready to sort through your baby items deciding what do to do with them. Ask a friend or relative to help you find out what store return policies are and assist you in getting items returned. Put items that you want to keep, together in a special box that you can get into when you need to. Try not to make any hasty decisions such as giving everything to charity; you may regret this later. You may want to give some items to charity, return some back to the store and keep some for the next baby.

How can I help myself grieve?

The following are things you can do to help yourself get through this difficult time in your life:

  • Talk to people about how you feel
  • Joining a support group may help you feel less isolated; it is good to know someone else understands what you are going through.
  • Write about your feelings in a journal. You may want to write a letter to your baby.
  • Make something for your baby such as an album, or plant a tree in the baby’s memory, or anything that makes you feel that you have done something.

Healing will take time. Little by little the emptiness that you feel in your heart will lessen and you will learn to live your life again. You will have new dreams and hopes for the future and your outlook on life will change. This means you are beginning to accept your loss, not forget it.

Pregnancy after stillbirth

The chances of having another stillbirth are very small. In fact, most women will give birth to a healthy baby after experiencing a stillbirth.

When to try again is something only you and your partner can decide. You will probably be physically ready before you are emotionally ready to start trying again. Future pregnancies will be tougher for you if you do not come to terms with your loss. Some professionals recommend you wait for at least a few months or up to a year before trying again to give yourself time to grieve.

Helpful Books:

  • A Rose in Heaven — by Dawn Siegrist Waltman
  • I’ll Hold You in Heaven — by Jack W. Hayford
  • Am I still a Big Sister? — by Audrey Bernheimer Weir and Susannah Hart Thomer

Helpful Organizations:

Compiled using information from the following sources:
National Stillbirth Society,
March of Dimes,
Share Pregnancy & Infant Loss Support, Inc.