Losing a child is the most devastating thing any parent can imagine. From the moment a baby enters the world, there’s someone waiting to cherish that little one and love them forever. But for many moms, their babies leave before their time, leaving gaping holes in families where that little person should be.
Stillbirth, or late-term miscarriage, is an unpredictable and unbearably painful experience for any mother. Unfortunately, it’s more common than parents like to think, and there’s often no clear reason why it happens to one mom and not another.
And while many moms feel that they’re “safe” after the 12-week milestone in pregnancy, that’s sadly not the case. Although early miscarriage is more common, countless women suffer pregnancy loss later on and into the third trimester.
But the first step in understanding this tragic phenomenon and coping with its aftermath is realizing what’s true and what’s not. Does breastfeeding cause stillbirth? Are certain women at higher risk of losing a baby? Can you tell if it’s a stillbirth by taking a pregnancy test? We’ll answer those questions and more with these fifteen facts about stillbirth. Plus, we’ve added five strategies for coping if you’re in the midst of living through the grief yourself.
20 Once A Mom Always A Mom
Often, moms who have experienced a stillbirth feel conflicted about whether to consider themselves a mom if they have no living children. Apart from the emotional turmoil of becoming a mother during pregnancy only to suffer a loss before birth, many moms experience guilt related to stillbirth. Some are reluctant to talk about their experiences or “claim” their children who passed away because they think others will judge them and think they’re not truly mothers.
But did you know that once you become pregnant with your baby, part of them stays with you forever?
It’s not just in your mind and heart- it’s in your DNA. Science News summarized the studies that document babies’ DNA in moms’ bodies, long after birth or death of the child. Fetal cells are in moms’ brains, hearts, and blood- proof that you were and still are a mama.
19 Some Moms Have Higher Risk
According to the National Institutes of Health, stillbirth occurs in 1 out of 160 pregnancies in the United States. Since 2003, the rate has stayed relatively consistent, with around 26 thousand stillbirths per year. The NIH found that African American women have a higher risk of preterm birth before 28 weeks of pregnancy- three times the rate of a white woman’s risk.
Although studies have explored the outcomes of thousands of women’s pregnancies, there isn’t yet a preventative measure to keep stillbirths from happening. Sadly, that means more women than ever have a tragic story to share about losing a child before he or she is even born. And these statistics only include pregnancies which resulted in a stillbirth at or past 20 weeks gestation, meaning moms whose babies pass earlier than that are considered miscarriages, not stillbirths, regardless of how they exit the womb.
18 How Far Doctors Are Willing To Push
Unfortunately, some babies that are delivered early may still be alive at birth, but without interventions, those babies soon pass away. According to FitPregnancy’s expert, the chief medical officer of the March of Dimes, hospitals have differing policies about treating babies who are significantly premature. Some hospitals don’t treat the earliest preemies, meaning the difference between a loss and a last ditch effort at life.
Most hospitals consider a fetus “viable” at or beyond 22 weeks gestation.
FitPregnancy points to a study which suggested that babies delivered at 22 weeks could still survive with cutting-edge medical treatment. For parents, this is amazing news if a baby must be delivered for critical reasons that make the womb unsafe. Previously, a baby at 22 weeks could be classified as a fetus, and not receive lifesaving medical care if it was delivered at that stage.
17 The Misery Of Making Milk Anyway
Young mom Catt McGrath knew something was wrong just days before her due date with her son Daniel. People reported that the 29-year-old mom didn’t feel her baby move, and after a few hours of him being relatively lazy, she decided to head to the doctor’s office. Daniel was already gone when doctors performed an ultrasound, and McGrath and her husband were devastated.
After their son was delivered, McGrath felt her milk come in. She met with a lactation consultant and decided that because she wasn’t able to donate any of Daniel’s organs to help another baby, she’d share his milk instead. She pumped for 3 ½ months and gave milk to preemies and local babies in need. Most moms end up dealing with the reality of making milk for a baby who is gone, but there’s the option to donate it to help other babies if a mom chooses.
16 Many Factors Influence The Odds
Unfortunately, current research hasn’t been able to adequately determine the reasons for pregnancy loss.
There are risk factors, however, which include a previous stillbirth, being a first-time mom, a history of miscarriage, gestational diabetes, AB blood type, substance use, and maternal obesity,
according to the National Institutes of Health.
Although the majority of stillbirths don’t result in an autopsy, the ones that do indicate pregnancy or birth-related complications cause most adverse events. Complications like preterm labor, water breaking prematurely, or placenta abruption were common, and placenta abnormalities were also a contributing factor. More research is needed to determine other underlying issues that might add to moms’ risks of stillbirth.
15 Infections During Pregnancy Cause Risk
Although there are a whole host of risk factors that researchers suggest might be to blame for stillbirths, there are a few things that are known to directly cause stillbirth. According to the American Pregnancy Association, for example, some types of infections can cause stillbirth. A bacterial infection that makes its way to the uterus can kill a baby without mom having any idea what’s happening.
A bacterial infection between 24 and 27 weeks is the worst time for a baby to be subjected to one, but as the APA notes, moms don’t usually notice an infection until it’s too late. By the time a mom gets a diagnosis, she typically has serious complications. In general, the most noticeable symptom of an infection is fever, which is why doctors take them so seriously when moms are in labor.
14 Genetics Create A Guessing Game
While there are many unexplained stillbirths that haunt parents for the rest of their lives, some families may find out that genetic anomalies are to blame. According to the American Pregnancy Association, between 15 and 20 percent of stillbirths are due to underlying genetic causes.
This can mean structural issues from genetic, environmental, or unknown causes, resulting in stunted growth or underdevelopment of a baby in utero.
Chromosomal abnormalities are another factor, and those are often visible via ultrasound, though not always. Some babies receive a diagnosis for a chromosomal abnormality while still in the womb, and parents must come to terms with the fact that their child won’t survive the pregnancy. Other times, the genetic malformations are invisible, leaving everyone, including doctors, to wonder what went wrong in the child’s DNA.
13 Hormones Wreak Havoc
Within seconds after you conceive, your body begins changing in undetectable ways. The bigger you get, the more noticeable those changes. And although technically a “stillbirth” is fetal loss after 20 weeks, moms who experience miscarriages before that mark can still experience the same hormonal effects as moms who carry their babies longer. Many moms start making milk early on, and the same can apply to moms whose babies pass away.
Most moms who experience stillbirth can expect to deal with post-birth hormones where their bodies haven’t figured out that the baby is both outside the womb and no longer alive. Things like prolonged hormonal dips or surges, a painful and full milk supply, or phantom twinges in moms’ tummies (muscles going back where they belong) can mess with mom’s mind as she recovers.
12 Aftercare Comes With Challenges
When a mom’s world is falling down around her, it can be difficult to think through what comes next. But for many moms who are diagnosed with a stillbirth, getting the baby out of the womb is the first step in the process.
While moms who are later on in their pregnancies may wait for their bodies to naturally go into labor, that can prove emotionally difficult and even physically risky.
As Stillbirthday explains, sometimes a D&C is needed to deliver the baby. While D&C is often paired with the abortion procedure, it’s not an abortion to have your stillborn baby delivered with the method. This can be especially hard for moms who wonder whether their babies are truly gone because they feel like they’re aborting the pregnancy. Some moms opt for an induction, but that’s not always the safe choice, either. Of course, no choice is easy.
11 The Pregnancy Test Might Still Say Positive
Sometimes a mom may suspect that there’s a problem with her pregnancy, but a positive test serves to reassure her. However, even though a baby has passed away inside the womb, that doesn’t always mean a pregnancy test will come up negative. Depending on where a mom is in her pregnancy, how high her hormone levels are, and when the baby passed away, she might still see a positive pregnancy test result while carrying a still baby.
That said, many moms will eventually see a decrease in hormone levels, whether it’s through an at-home pregnancy test or a blood draw at the doctor’s office. The only true way to confirm a loss before delivering a baby is to see your doctor, because ultimately, you can’t trust a test to check on the baby.
10 Preventative Measures May Help
Most expectant moms already avoid smoking and drinking with a baby on board, but is there anything else we can do to avoid the risk of stillbirth? According to WebMD, there are a few suggestions from the medical community that might help. First, keeping a kick count can help moms notice sooner whether the baby is moving normally.
If the baby stops moving, mom should get to the doctor right away.
WebMD also lists exercising regularly and avoiding unpasteurized and raw foods to prevent stillbirth. However, there’s no magic formula that guarantees your baby is safe, these are just guidelines. Another recommendation is to take folic acid daily, but moms who suspect they have the gene mutation MTHFR should consult a knowledgeable professional before taking any folic acid as it can have negative impacts for mom and baby.
9 Pregnancy Planning Is Key
According to WebMD, spacing out your pregnancies is another way to help avoid stillbirth. While many parents prefer their babies close in age- think Irish twins- having little ones back-to-back isn’t good for mom or for her babies. K4health notes that the “recommended interval for attempting the next pregnancy is at least 24 months.”
Moms who wait two years or more (and breastfeed during that time) between babies have a decreased risk of low birth weight, preterm delivery, and both neonatal and perinatal mortality. Nursing for two years or more is also beneficial to baby’s health, they state, and that recommendation fits with the WHO and UNICEF’s guidelines on breastfeeding into toddlerhood. K4health also cites waiting until after age 18 for first pregnancies to lower mom and baby’s risks even more.
8 Conception Timelines Count
While most moms are hesitant to try to conceive again after suffering a stillbirth, others are prepared both mentally and physically to jump back in and try again. However, moms (and couples) should consider their timeline carefully and make the decision that is right for them. Babble quotes doctors and midwives who suggest
waiting for two to three menstrual cycles after a stillbirth to try and conceive again. They also say moms who had a C-section should ideally wait at least six months for recovery.
Emotional readiness is another factor that depends on both mom’s wellbeing and her partner’s. Working through the grief of losing a child can take a lot of time for some couples, while others are ready to embrace another pregnancy sooner. Either way, there’s no shame in choosing what’s good for you and your family.
7 Breastfeeding Isn’t To Blame
Although old wives’ tales about breastfeeding causing moms to lose their subsequent pregnancies run rampant, there’s little scientific evidence to support the theory. That’s according to KellyMom, which discusses how breastfeeding and uterine contractions are related and whether your uterus is directly linked to your baby’s food source.
While plenty of breastfeeding mothers have experienced loss, there’s no reason to assume that it’s due to their nursing habits and not other factors. Overall, even moms who experience contraction-like feelings while nursing see them subside after baby’s done eating. There’s also the fact that your uterus doesn’t take orders from oxytocin, the hormone that is tied to both nursing and labor, until the new baby’s really ready to make his entrance into the world. Still, all moms should keep an eye out for true preterm labor and consult their physician if necessary.
6 It’s Not Mom’s Fault
While moms often feel intense guilt over stillbirth, there’s no evidence that suggests they’re to blame for their babies’ untimely passing. Between genetic anomalies, silent but deadly infections, and a hundred other possibilities, there’s often no way of even pinpointing what has caused a stillbirth, let alone a way to connect it to something mom did or didn’t do.
The most important thing for moms to recognize about stillbirth is the simple fact that it’s not their fault.
It’s normal to feel grief and guilt, but moms can’t blame themselves for this devastating turn of events. A project centered in the UK noted that stillbirth is 10 times more common than SIDS, The Guardian highlighted, and yet many parents know nothing about it. That makes informing themselves even more important toward both prevention and recovery.
And 5 Ways To Cope
5 Acknowledge Your Loss
The last thing any grieving mom wants to do is sit and reflect on everything she’s lost along with her unborn baby, but it’s crucial that moms don’t ignore their big emotions. Holding everything inside will probably only result in a meltdown later, and that’s not healthy for a mom, her partner, or any other children in the family.
It may feel like it, but life hasn’t ended. Find a way to celebrate the child that you lost, and try to recall your time with them fondly. Say their name (if you’ve chosen one), keep their things near you, and plan a remembrance ceremony or a funeral if it helps you cope. Having a place to “visit” with your baby is another coping mechanism that’s part of acknowledgment. Visiting a gravesite or keeping your baby’s remains with you can even help you heal.
4 Share To Lessen The Pain
As The Guardian Reported, a 2017 project to document parents’ experiences with stillbirth has a wide-reaching impact. So many parents suffer silently after losing a child, with many reluctant to share what happened to their pregnancy and how they feel afterward. Often, moms who were expecting their first babies feel like they are no longer worthy of calling themselves mothers.
But times are changing, and talking about child loss is not taboo, nor is it always negative.
In fact, the project Stillbirth Stories gave parents a way to talk through their grief while helping other families understand and come to terms with the experience of losing a child to stillbirth. While heartbreakingly widespread, stillbirth is something that families can get through and learn to deal with in their own ways.
3 Embrace The Grief
There’s no point in pretending that it doesn’t hurt, so let it out. Find a way to release your grief, whether it’s through simply crying, writing letters to your baby, playing loud music, losing yourself in a hobby, or anything else that feels better than staring at the wall. You don’t have to put a lot of energy into it, but figuring out how to deal with grief and anger in healthy ways can help you to move forward.
As long as you take care not to lose sight of the fact that life is still moving forward, taking time to let your feelings out can help. Just be careful not to take it out on your partner or push your loved ones away. After all, they’ll be there long after this painful event, and depending on them for support helps more than pushing them away.
2 Seek Outside Support
Even if you have the most supportive family and partner that you could wish for, sometimes seeing a professional can help you work through dealing with a stillbirth. It’s also helpful to connect with someone who not only has the skills and experience to help you help yourself,
but it’s also likely that a counselor or other professional will acknowledge the enormity of your loss.
Some people see stillbirth and miscarriage as an “oops,” and think that because a living child didn’t come into the world, it’s somehow different than becoming a parent to a living and breathing baby. Put up a buffer around yourself if you know people like that, and pour everything out in therapy, where you can get the proper support and recognition for your difficult feelings.
1 Be Kind To Yourself
Ultimately, it’s important for moms to remember that it’s not their fault if they suffered a stillbirth. Being kind to yourself not only helps you heal, but it helps you to relieve the guilt that you might feel. Thinking “what if” and replaying every second of your pregnancy won’t help you to move forward in life, and it doesn’t do anything for the memory of the child that was taken from you, either.
Try to hold onto happy memories of your time with your child and go easy on yourself. You’ll have difficult days, but it will get better, and life will go on. It’s your job to keep yourself moving forward, and it’s also your job to remember that no matter what, you are still a mom to the child that is no longer with you.