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Midwives are in a unique position to help support grieving parents following stillbirth

Photo: Still Aware
When a baby is stillborn, parents are left in shock and disbelief, as well as experiencing overwhelming feelings of grief.

Midwives are in a unique position to ensure parents are able to grieve fully, offering support and guidance during a devastating experience that no new parent is equipped to deal with.

“Midwives play an integral role in pregnancy, childbirth and beyond,” says Claire Foord, founder and CEO of Still Aware, who lost her own daughter through stillbirth in 2014.

“The birth of a baby who is stillborn brings with it additional layers of complexity but the process is still very much the same.

“Midwives can be a support to parents through treating parents as just that, parents - and validating the little life lost to stillbirth through treating a stillborn baby in the same way that a live baby is treated, with care and love.”
Stillbirth is a devastation that lasts a lifetime. Ms Foord says it is not unusual to see post-traumatic stress disorder occur even as years go by.

“Parents suffer insurmountable grief with anxiety and depression common. Stillbirth places significant strain on relationships and sometimes the need to grieve differently can place undue stress and it is not uncommon to see parents separate as a subsequence of such devastating loss.”

In subsequent pregnancies, after stillbirth, parents are often stressed and anxious.

“Stillbirth does not only effect the parents but has a flow-on effect to the broader family unit and community.

“There is much stigma believed to exist around stillbirth and this too can add additional strain due to perceived lack of understanding and empathy towards parents after stillbirth.”

Ms Foord says midwives are in a unique position to assist parents in creating lasting memories, by encouraging them to see and hold their babies.

“Midwives should offer the baby to the family, allow them to hold, cuddle, bath, dress and care for their child as you would if the child drew breath after delivery.

“It is suggested to offer all the different types of support available, from literature and support materials, to free counselling services and photography services and the use of cold or cuddle cots to enable the baby to stay with the family as long as possible.

“Offering parents their freedom to choose the journey for them among the turmoil and sorrow is important in this memory making process. When a child is stillborn it is important to remember that there is still so much love among the sorrow and pain.”

Midwife and Associate Professor Jane Warland says she can still remember the first time she was unable to find a foetal heart and had to tell the mother that she was concerned.

“I have mainly cared for parents once the stillbirth is known and they are in labour in birth suite.

“The silence in the room is always deafening and there isn’t the normal hustle and bustle of live birth, no need to stimulate the baby to take their first breath.”

Professor Warland says the midwife should play the role of advocate for the parents when often they are unable to advocate for themselves.

“This means being proactive in guiding parents to be parents for their baby , bathing the baby, dressing the baby, singing to the baby and taking the baby home are all important parenting activities that the midwife can encourage the parents to do, to help them create special memories of their time with their baby.”

Having experienced the loss of her own baby through stillbirth, Professor Warland has a special insight into what parents are going through, and is able to offer an additional level of empathy.

“I haven’t always shared with parents my own experience, it has depended on the circumstances, the rapport I’ve developed and if I feel my own experience might help them make a decision that might be helpful, for example, inviting children in to see the baby.

“I knew some of the things I should be doing, for example seeing and holding the baby.

“Don’t do anything that you would not do if the baby was alive.

“For example, you would never ask a mum about to give birth to a living baby if they wanted to see and hold the baby.

“Likewise, you would never say it was best for children not to see their baby sibling.

“Similarly, if the mum asks ‘can I bath the baby?’ again you would never say no, the answer would be ‘of course, it’s your baby go ahead’. 

Everyday in Australia 6 babies are stillborn. Australia’s stillbirth rates are 35% higher than top performing countries globally, with 1 in every 135 pregnancies in Australia ending in stillbirth.

Professor Warland says midwives also have a significant role to play in preventing the stillbirth from happening in the first place.

“Stillbirth can probably be prevented up to 50% of the time.

“Providing information based on Still Aware’s brochure ‘6 actions for a safer pregnancy’ helps to empower the woman to get to know her baby and immediately report concerns to her midwife which in turn means that the midwife can act to initiate  investigations such as a CTG or ultrasound which may reveal a baby in trouble who needs to be born.”

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Nicole Madigan

Nicole Madigan is a widely published journalist with more than 15 years experience in the media and communications industries.

Specialising in health, business, property and finance, Nicole writes regularly for numerous high-profile newspapers, magazines and online publications.

Before moving into freelance writing almost a decade ago, Nicole was an on-air reporter with Channel Nine and a newspaper journalist with News Limited.

Nicole is also the Director of content and communications agency Stella Communications (www.stellacomms.com) and a children's author.