Born Still or Died Soon After Birth: In the Hospital

You may find that with the support and guidance of hospital staff, family and friends are able to spend time with your baby, once the turmoil of the labour ward or neonatal intensive care unit is over.

While staying in hospital, staff should be able to arrange for you to see your baby as often as you wish. The time you spend with your baby may occur over several hours or days.

Until the burial or cremation (see Funeral, burial and cremation below), your baby’s body may be kept at the hospital or at a funeral home. It is possible for you to spend time with your baby at either of these places.

In situations where a post-mortem is legally required, you may not be able to touch and hold your baby until after this has been completed. Also, some medical tubing may have to be left in place.

Being with your baby

During the time spent with your baby, you might like to look carefully at your baby’s features, observing likenesses to other family members. Although you may feel nervous about any abnormalities or skin changes, these issues become less significant as you spend time getting to know your baby, absorbing everything you can about your daughter or son.

Some hospitals are able to provide accommodation for you and your partner away from the nursery, where you may spend time with your baby. If you have other children you may choose to involve them as well as family and friends.

During this time you may choose to take photographs, collect a lock of your baby’s hair, have ink prints or plaster moulds made of your baby’s hands and feet, or draw a tracing of your baby’s body. You may find comfort in bathing, sponging and dressing your baby in clothes specially bought or made. Some hospitals are able to provide a pram so that you can walk with your baby in the hospital grounds. You may even choose to take your baby home. The hospital social worker may be able to arrange this for you.

However you spend the time you have with your baby, this precious time is an opportunity to talk to your baby, saying things that would otherwise have been left unsaid. Or you may prefer just to look and create memories.

“Born too early he died, and I am left with the sad, warm memory of his skin against mine”.

Post-Mortem Examination

It is often difficult to grasp that decisions about your baby’s body must be made soon after death. Having to comprehend and discuss a post-mortem examination of your baby’s body may seem too painful to endure. At the same time, you may be aware that a post-mortem may provide vital information that will help you come to understand the reasons for your baby’s death.

In some cases the post-mortem examination of your baby’s body is a legal requirement. This may occur when a baby, who is born alive, dies suddenly of an unknown cause; or dies within twenty-four hours of an anaesthetic; or dies an unnatural or unusual death. In these situations a post-mortem can be done even without your permission.

When a baby is stillborn or dies in the newborn period, you may be asked to give permission for a post-mortem examination of your baby’s body. Unless the examination is legally required, a post-mortem cannot be done without the signed consent of you or your partner.

During a post-mortem, the baby’s body is examined to reveal a possible cause of death. This examination very often includes a surgical procedure, which is performed by a pathologist, where incisions are made in the baby’s body to enable examination of internal organs. Following the examination, the incisions are usually stitched.

When considering a post-mortem, or when a post-mortem is legally required, you may find it valuable to spend time discussing the examination with your doctor, midwife or hospital social worker. They can also provide information brochures about post-mortem.

The decision to consent to a post-mortem does not have to be made immediately following the baby’s death.

Considerations about a post-mortem

You may consent to a post-mortem, hoping to find the cause of your baby’s death. However, a post-mortem examination may or may not reveal this. You may also permit a post-mortem examination of your baby’s body in the hope that medical knowledge can be gained. However, you may not want a post-mortem because of cultural or spiritual beliefs, or because you feel that your baby has been through enough invasive procedures prior to death.

In some instances, the cause of death will already be known when your baby dies, and a post-mortem examination will reveal no further information. Sometimes, when a possible cause of your baby’s death has been identified, you may choose an alternative to a full post-mortem, such as a limited post-mortem or an external examination only. Your doctor, midwife or hospital social worker will be able to provide you with more information about these options.

Following a post-mortem procedure, a verbal report of any preliminary findings will usually be made available to your doctor within twenty-four hours of the examination. The final results may take from six to eight weeks or sometimes even longer. To discuss any possible findings of the post-mortem, you usually need to make an appointment with your doctor, who may also be able to answer questions or provide information about your baby’s death.

“I wanted to understand why my baby died and at the same time I didn’t want anyone to touch her body.”

Seeing and holding your baby after a post-mortem

You are able to see and hold your baby following a post-mortem, although you may have concerns about how your baby’s body will look. Often, the time following the post-mortem is the last opportunity you will have to spend time with your baby.

Medical and nursing staff will be able to accurately describe the position of the incisions on your baby’s body. You may request that staff bring your baby to you dressed, so that the incisions are covered, or you may feel it is important to look at the incisions to see what has happened. That decision is entirely up to you.

You might like to use this time with your baby to take photographs and create other memories of your baby. You may also wish to give your other children, family and friends the opportunity to spend some time with your baby before the funeral or memorial service.

Funeral, burial and cremation

It is a legal requirement that the body of a stillborn baby or a baby who dies in the newborn period be buried, cremated, placed in a mausoleum or a permanent resting place. To this end you may choose to create a personal or individual service to mark your baby’s life in the form of a funeral or memorial service. Alternatively you may wish for the hospital to handle the arrangements.

Hospital burials

Sometimes you may be asked if you would like the hospital to organise the baby’s burial for you. When the hospital organises the baby’s burial there is usually little or no cost to you. However, often you and family members cannot be present, and your baby may be buried in a grave with others. In this instance, you are usually not invited to place any type of plaque or memorial stone on your baby’s grave.

Planning your own service

A funeral or memorial service can provide you with the opportunity to acknowledge your baby’s life and death, and to say goodbye to your baby. Many parents describe their baby’s funeral as a very special, personal occasion and take much care and time in planning the ceremony. There is usually no need to hurry to have the funeral.

You can arrange a service through a funeral director or you and your partner may decide to arrange the ceremony yourselves. While you are still trying to comprehend that your baby has died, you may feel it is a burden to contact a funeral director and organise your own baby’s funeral. You also may not know about the types of ceremonies available.

Your baby’s funeral or memorial service can be held quite a number of days after your baby has died. You might choose to wait a week or more to allow time for recovery from a caesarean birth or other medical treatment, or to give you some extra days to rest after days or weeks spent in hospital with your baby. Waiting to hold the funeral may also provide an opportunity for family and friends to travel to be with you.

You may choose to plan a very small, private funeral attended only by immediate family members. Alternatively you may choose to involve extended family and friends. You may also wish to invite members of the staff who cared for you or your baby to attend your baby’s funeral.

Sometimes, parents and family members write letters or poetry which they place in the baby’s coffin, along with toys, mementos, drawings from the baby’s brothers and sisters and other items of significance. You might like to select clothes to dress your baby in for the funeral. Often the hospital can provide beautiful outfits lovingly made for tiny babies by volunteers.

You can also hold your baby’s funeral service in a chapel, at the baby’s graveside, at home or at another special place. You may be comforted by having your family and friends with you to share readings of particular significance, special music or to speak of the hopes and dreams they had for the baby.

These are just some of the ways you can remember your baby. Your social worker or the medical staff in your hospital may be able to help with information and ideas for your baby’s funeral. Red Nose Grief and Loss also has a booklet called Choices in Arranging a Child’s Funeral which gives further ideas and information. Contact 1300 308 307 to obtain a copy.

“Together, we dressed her for the funeral and our families came to say goodbye with us.”

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: 17/4/24