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Coping with a stillbirth: how to deal with your loss and move forward

A pregnancy loss is a difficult thing to cope with. If it happens to you, you’re not alone. Miscarriages – when the baby is lost earlier than 20 weeks – occur in approximately 15 – 20 % of pregnancies. A loss after 20 weeks gestation is termed a stillbirth. A loss is also termed stillbirth if the fetus is deceased at birth. According to the CDC, about 25,000 babies in the United States are stillborn each year.

Causes of stillbirth

With proper prenatal care and regular check-ups, the likelihood of fetal death in late pregnancy is low. In the U.S., about one fetus is stillborn for approximately every 200 births. If a fetus is still born, this may come as an unwelcome shock for parents who were experiencing an otherwise normal pregnancy.

Over 50% of stillbirths are unexplained, though there are several factors which may contribute to an incidence of stillbirth:

  • Serious genetic abnormalities or birth defects
  • Infections that occur between 24 and 27 weeks gestation that go unnoticed by the mother until serious complications arise
  • Problems with the placenta, such as when the placenta separates from the uterine wall too soon or doesn’t provide enough nutrition to the developing baby
  • Complications with the umbilical cord. In the case of a prolapsed umbilical cord, for example, the cord leaves the vagina before the baby and can block its oxygen supply

Factors that increase the likelihood of stillbirth are cigarette smoking, alcohol use, and drug use. If you have a history of obesity or a previous stillbirth, you should be closely monitored by your doctor to ensure that your baby is developing healthily.

Should I be concerned?

Always see your healthcare professional if you have health concerns during your pregnancy. Some warning signs to be aware of are:

  • Severe abdominal cramps
  • Vaginal bleeding or spotting
  • High fever
  • Lack of fetal movement. If this is your first pregnancy, you should expect to feel first kicks between 18 to 24 weeks gestation. If you’ve been pregnant before, you can expect to feel your baby a little sooner. If you’ve passed this mark, or once felt movement and now don’t, you should head to the doctor’s office to see what the cause might be.

Going through a stillbirth

As a mother, this will be a difficult time to get through, and you may feel like blaming yourself for something you did during your pregnancy. In the majority of cases, it is not the mother’s fault.

With miscarriages, the pregnancy is typically so early on that your body will deal with this process naturally. For a stillbirth, you may have to make the difficult decision of how to proceed with your birth. Most stillbirths are done through vaginal delivery, as opposed to Caesarean section, and may allow more time to work through your grief and shock. Generally, it is medically safe to carry a fetus up to two weeks after it is confirmed deceased. After this point, induction would be necessary to avoid dangerous complications to your health.

In the hospital, you may be allowed time with your stillborn baby. Allow yourself to grieve and cry – this is, without a doubt, a difficult situation. It’s important to process your feelings and say goodbye in order to eventually move on.

After giving birth to a stillborn baby, you need time to heal – both physically and emotionally. You may experience vaginal bleeding or spotting for a few weeks. You may also notice your breasts filling with milk or becoming sore and tender a few days after your procedure. These physical discomforts may be especially difficult to cope with as a reminder of your loss.

You may feel better about talking to friends and family about your loss, or joining a support group such as the Stillbirth Collaborative Research Network and the International Stillbirth Alliance to connect with other parents who’ve experienced the same thing. Later on, you may feel comforted by purchasing a small necklace or bracelet to remind you of your baby, or planting a tree in his or her honor. As with any major loss, healing will take time, but slowly, you will feel ready to live your life again and work toward the future.

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