Losing a Baby Before or During Labour

When told that their baby will be stillborn, many women describe the pain of knowing that the unborn baby they are carrying has died. It can be very lonely and frightening to anticipate and prepare for the birth of a baby that has died.

What will happen?

If your baby dies before labour has begun, your doctor may recommend that labour be induced, that the baby be born by caesarean section or that labour commence naturally. These recommendations may be made for particular medical reasons.

You may find it valuable to take some time to make decisions about how your baby will be born. This may involve changing the place and type of delivery you had anticipated, as the plans you had made for your baby’s birth may now be unsuitable.

Before your baby is born you may wish to talk about involving family and friends as support people during your labour. The use of traditional aids to labour like music, hot packs, massage and breathing techniques may still be very valuable, as will the love and support of those around you. If you are unsure about the labour, your midwives and doctor will be able to provide information, support and assistance at this time.

The birth of a stillborn baby

The staff caring for you during your labour will be able to answer questions about the progress of labour and provide emotional support for you and your partner. They will also be able to discuss and plan with you the moments following your baby’s birth and your first contact with your baby.

It may be worth discussing your expectations with your midwives or doctor. The size and appearance of your baby will depend on the length of your pregnancy and any medical condition the baby may have. Factors like skin tone, texture and the colour of your baby’s lips can vary, and depending on the amount of time between death and birth, your baby’s skin may have begun to blister and peel in a process called maceration. Asking your doctor to explain how your baby may look and feel immediately after birth will help your expectations to match reality.

“Although I was told my baby would be born dead, it was only when I saw her so lifeless that I began to understand that she really had died”.

When your baby dies after birth

The knowledge that your newborn baby is critically ill is a tremendous shock. Your lives are thrown into turmoil as your expectation of taking home a healthy newborn baby is shattered. If your baby has been born too early, you may be faced with watching helplessly as your tiny baby struggles for life. In some cases, your newborn baby may be transferred for intensive care either locally or hundreds of kilometres away, as health professionals work to save your baby’s life.

During this time you and your family will see unfamiliar people and places, with some families becoming separated by distance or work commitments. Some mothers are unable to be with their baby immediately following delivery due to their own medical condition. If your baby has been transferred, it may be days before you are reunited. Disruptions to family life occur as you and your partner focus on your critically ill baby.

“I had to stay in hospital while my baby son was flown to the city for intensive care. I desperately wanted to be with him.”

Caring for your baby in Neonatal Intensive Care

Your baby may live for hours, days or weeks in a neonatal intensive care unit. This time may be the only opportunity to be together as a family, to get to know your baby. It can be difficult for you and your partner to have contact with your baby because of the presence of other people, the baby’s condition and the medical equipment in use.

When twins or triplets are born prematurely or with a serious medical condition, one or more babies may be in the neonatal intensive care unit at the same time. In this situation, it may be difficult to deal with the conflict of having two very ill babies, or trying to care for one who is ill and another who is well.

“He looked so sick that I was scared to touch him.”

With guidance and support it is often possible for you and your partner to share in caring for your baby. You may be able to assist in washing and changing your baby and you may be able to bottle, tube or breastfeed your baby. If actively caring for your baby is not possible you may be given opportunities just to touch and hold your baby and you might like to take photographs or videos. You may want to let family, friends and other children become close to your baby. Sometimes just placing a special item close to your baby is enough.

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: 20/6/24