A Mother’s Health After a Stillbirth or Neonatal Death
After the birth of a stillborn baby or a baby who has died in the neonatal period, the physical needs of many women become overshadowed by the death of the baby.
After childbirth, women’s bodies go through a process of change and recovery. You will experience vaginal bleeding, your breast milk will come in and your uterus will gradually return to normal size. You may also be recovering from procedures such as epidurals, episiotomies, caesareans or other medical conditions associated with pregnancy.
While trying to recover from childbirth, you may be spending time organising and attending the baby’s funeral, with visitors, taking telephone calls and caring for other family members.
After the death of a baby it can be difficult for you to get adequate rest, eat regularly and generally be aware of your own needs.
Medical follow-up is important to ensure that your general state of health is good and your uterus has returned to normal. Your doctor, clinic or community nurse should carry out this follow-up within six weeks of your baby’s birth.
At this visit many parents discuss their baby’s birth and death with their doctor or midwife. You may want to prepare questions you wish to ask. It can be distressing for you to return to the doctor’s surgery or clinic where you had last been while you were pregnant. It may be possible to arrange an appointment when the surgery or clinic is not busy. You may find it helpful to ask a supportive person to go with you on this visit.
Give yourself time to recover both emotionally and physically. Medications can often prevent the expression of emotions and are usually unnecessary. Family and friends may be able to assist you with any tasks that seem too much.
Vaginal bleeding usually continues for one to three weeks, gradually becoming lighter. It is advisable to use sanitary napkins (pads) at this time rather than tampons. You should seek medical advice if heavy bleeding occurs or if you experience strong pain.
Women cannot control the hormones that stimulate the breasts to fill with milk.
Within two to three days of your baby’s birth your breasts will produce milk. Full breasts may leak following an embrace, hearing the cry of a baby or even after thinking of your baby who has died. The breasts can be very sensitive to touch and may be painful and uncomfortable. Production of milk is distressing for some mothers and comforting for others. You may feel that your milk is the last link you have to your baby.
Breast milk can be suppressed by avoiding stimulation of the breasts and wearing a firm bra both day and night. Painful breasts are often relieved by taking warm showers, the application of chilled cabbage leaves and cold compresses, and using pillows for support. Small expressions of milk may be necessary to relieve discomfort and can gradually be reduced over time.
Breast milk can also be suppressed through the use of prescription drugs. Your doctor can explain the use of these medications. Tender lumps or red areas on your breasts may indicate a blocked duct. If this occurs seek medical advice through your doctor or clinic.
“My breasts were aching, my whole body was longing for my baby.”
Your doctor or medical staff may suggest the period of time before your body will be physically ready to resume sexual intercourse. However, when you will be emotionally ready is an individual experience. Discuss your feelings with your partner so that the timing is appropriate for both of you. Concern and love for each other may be expressed in other ways until you feel you are ready for sexual intercourse.
This article was prepared using extracts from Stillbirth and Neonatal death1. The full text is available online or contact Red Nose Grief and Loss Services on 1300 308 307 for a printed version.
Last reviewed: 25/1/20
1. Ford, D., Richardson, R., Robertson, S-E., Stammers, R., Oxlade, E., Carter, J. & SIDS and Kids. (2016). Stillbirth and Neonatal death: A Booklet By and for Parents whose Baby is Stillborn or Dies soon after Birth. Malvern, Vic.: SIDS and Kids. (Original work published 2004 entitled Treasured Babies).