Medical professionals should help mothers to hold their stillborn babies.

Recent research shows that mothers who hold their stillborn babies report that the experience had overall positive long-term effects on their grieving. According to researchers, mothers who had contact with their stillborn babies reported that they “had time to process what happened, to build memories, and to ‘say goodbye’, often sharing the experience with partners and other family members … [T]he majority of mothers felt satisfied with their decision to spend time with their stillborn baby.” (BMC Pregnancy & Childbirth, Mothers’ Experience of their Contact With Their Stillborn Infant: An Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis, Kirsty Rykinks, Cara Roberts-Collins, Kirstie McKenzie-McHarg, Antje Horsch). For this reason, medical professionals would do well to consider ways to suggest affirmatively that mothers have physical contact with their babies, while also providing ongoing necessary support.

This finding resonates with me on a visceral level. In December of 2005, I gave birth to a stillborn son. As I was being medically induced in order to deliver him, I remember being sideswiped by this question: would you like to hold your baby?

I can remember only dimly how shattering and painful I found this question as it echoed and morphed into language to which I could hardly bear to attach meaning.  The beginning had transformed itself into the end. I was filled with anguish and dread and love and abject panic.

Some mothers who were interviewed for this study indicated that they had been fearful of seeing their baby owing to physical damage or decomposition. It is worth noting that those medical professionals who spend time talking to bereaved mothers about their expectations enabled these mothers to have a more positive experience in the long term.

This is no easy feat. Medical professionals are not necessarily trained to discuss this aspect of birth with their patients.  I remember pleading with my OB to tell me what had happened to my son in a physical sense.  As a very experienced doctor, I remember her gently, kindly and expertly, telling me.  She was both compassionate and informative.  For example, I was told to expect bruising around my son’s head and so when I noted this I was not shocked.  This information was strangely empowering because it prepared me to make the one choice I could make in that grim setting.  As a result of my doctor’s careful words, I was as well prepared for the shock of holding him, as it was possible to be. I moved instantly beyond it to the place of seeing the beauty in him that all parents see in their children upon presentation just after birth.

I was reminded that the scale of suffering in a stillbirth labor and delivery room stands in such sharp contrast to the rest of the floor, that additional information can’t really make it worse.  Families who face this don’t get do-overs, and decisions made in these rooms are final.  They are stunned as they face death, with babies on a floor accustomed to ecstatic balloon bouquets and stuffed animals heralding new life. In spending the time with me that my doctor did, she was setting the stage for me to have an experience with my son that was as positive and profound as it was possible to be.

According to the study: “Nevertheless, even in cases where mothers experienced intense distress during the contact with their stillborn baby, they still described that having had this contact was important and that in hindsight they felt they had taken the right decision. These findings indicate a need for giving parents an informed choice by engaging in discussions about the possible benefits and risks of seeing their stillborn baby, rather than rigidly following perinatal bereavement protocols and guidelines.”

Researchers underscore that dissociation may occur in stillbirth, and it is for this reason that physical connection with the baby may have positive effects in the long term. I found dissociation to be a large factor in my son’s stillbirth although not an absolute. I do not remember every moment because of the merciful tricks the mind plays in trauma. Still. I did hold my baby. When he emerged into this world, we did create memories.  These are the footholds of him now.  They are how I have tried to understand his death. These are the things that we have of him.  They are not the memories we intended, but they are powerfully validating even years after the fact.  And I feel grateful to have them.

This article originally appeared on Psychology Today.

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