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Why don't people talk more about stillbirths?

  • Nine babies are stillborn every day in the UK, on average
  • Emma Beck's second child was stillborn after eight months of pregnancy
  • Lingering questions about her daughter's death led her on a quest to find out more about stillbirth and the taboo that surrounds it

It happens all too often - in the park, at the supermarket checkout, at the school gate. But every time I'm asked the question, "How many children do you have?" I feel a flush of panic.

I want to reply: "Three, but my second child died. She was stillborn." But that's usually too much for people to cope with.

Sometimes I do tell the truth, other times, I just fudge it. Often I say nothing. Then I feel a stab of guilt that I've denied Mary and betrayed her memory.

Stillbirth - the death of a baby after 24 weeks of pregnancy or during birth - is not common in the UK. But it is more common than many people think.


Find out more

Emma Beck's documentary, We Need To Talk About Stillbirth, is on BBC Radio 4 at 11:00 BST, 22 July - catch up on BBC iPlayer Radio


On average, nine babies are stillborn every day in the UK. A third of stillbirths occur at term - 37 weeks of pregnancy.

Ever since my experience of it six years ago, I've felt frustrated by the silence around stillbirth. I also wanted to find out more about why my daughter died. Her death was "unexplained". I set out to make a radio programme, speaking to other parents and clinicians trying to prevent it.

I discovered there is some promising work going on to reduce numbers, but we need to get better at identifying babies at risk.

There are known risk factors. Mothers who are obese, who smoke, or suffer social deprivation are at higher risk. But most stillbirths happen to healthy women who have no prior medical condition. About one in three are, like my stillbirth, unexplained.

Perhaps the biggest problem surrounding the issue is the fact no-one really talks about it

Emma Beck
iStock

And of mothers who are "at risk", the sense of fatalism - that it's just one of those things - can be misplaced. Many stillbirths are potentially preventable.

One of the biggest problems surrounding the issue is the fact no-one really talks about it. I hope sharing my experience will not only raise awareness but encourage a conversation that will go a long way to supporting bereaved parents.

I was happily and healthily pregnant for eight months before I knew anything was wrong. It was the summer of 2010 and I was 34. My first child, Arthur, had been born nearly three years earlier, weighing a whopping 9lb 6oz (4.25kg). He had been overdue and was delivered by emergency c-section.

I was invited to the hospital for a weight scan to see if my second baby was likely to be big, too. My husband and I took Arthur with us to see his baby sister on the ultrasound screen.

The sonographer couldn't find a heartbeat.

I find it so hard to think back to that moment. I recall no other feeling but desolate sadness. I have a clear recollection of hugging my bewildered son and flimsily trying to reassure him that it was all going to be OK.

With stillbirth, a mother is encouraged nevertheless to go through with labour and give birth naturally. A Caesarean is a major operation with risks of its own.

I was given medication to begin the process of induction and my husband and I were sent home to return to the hospital the following day.

I recall sitting around the dinner table that evening in this hideous limbo - looking pregnant, but knowing my daughter had already died.

The following morning, at the hospital, we were shown to a delivery room. Heartbreakingly, we could hear the wooshing sound of other live babies' heartbeats being monitored as we waited for my contractions to start.

It was that morning we met Jane Laking, the bereavement support midwife. She answered frankly and kindly all the questions we had about the birth.

Her support was invaluable, but not all maternity units have a specialist midwife. She asked if we wanted to meet Mary, hold her and take photographs. It all seemed so morbid. All I could think was I wanted the whole horrific event over with.

Now, I'm so grateful to Jane for persuading us to do these things. Those precious hours we had with Mary after she was born were the building blocks of our memories of her.

Image caption A photo of Mary and her mother

Yet my recollections of Mary's birth are not wholly sad. I feel a huge sense of pride when I think of that day. When I delivered Mary and saw her for the first time I felt exactly the same rush of love for her as I did for my son.

The moment I had seen that blue line on the pregnancy stick eight months earlier, like all mums to-be, I imagined Mary's future.

Unlike other deaths where there are shared memories, stillbirth is different. When a child is stillborn, those shared memories often don't exist, so you are robbed of the opportunity to talk about and remember your child.

In the early days, when I mentioned Mary, other people's awkwardness made me angry. I empathise much more now. Death is hard to discuss - particularly the death of a baby before it is even born.

However, I feel strongly we need to challenge ourselves and be more comfortable talking about stillbirth.

Many people - understandably - assumed I didn't want to talk about my daughter.

Some crossed the street to avoid speaking to me. I felt thrilled and enormously grateful to friends who referred to Mary by name, asked what she weighed or if she looked like me or her dad.

I found people not mentioning her the hardest thing of all.


Stillbirths

  • A stillbirth is a baby born dead after 24 completed weeks of pregnancy (before this time, it's known as a miscarriage)
  • There were more than 3,250 stillbirths in the UK in 2014 - about one in every 200 births
  • The largest single group of stillbirths is linked to placenta complications; other causes include complications before and during labour, birth defects, and, for a small number, problems with the mother's health, eg pre-eclampsia or infections
  • Not all stillbirths can be prevented, but the risk can be reduced by stopping smoking, avoiding drugs and alcohol during pregnancy, and attending antenatal appointments so midwives can monitor the baby's growth and wellbeing
  • For help and support, contact SANDS (stillbirth and neo-natal death charity)

Source: Sands, Tommy's and MBRRACE-UK


Talking about her made me cry. Sometimes it still does. But people asking about her was a comfort because, in some way, it justified my grief. Ignoring Mary's stillbirth made me feel like she didn't matter.

All stillborn babies have to be registered. When we went to do this for Mary the receptionist kindly ushered my husband and I quickly into the registrar's office to save us waiting among the proud parents and their newborns.

Some hospitals now arrange for the registrar to visit the hospital to register the birth/death and save families this distress. These thoughtful but simple changes can make a real difference.

Stillborn babies must, by law, be formally buried or cremated. Mary is buried around a children's tree at a woodland burial park. It has four big trunks stretching up into the sky. It gives me great comfort to know she is somewhere so beautiful. She has a simple wooden plaque marked with a single date - her birth and death. There is something about that I find particularly tragic.

Like half of women who have a stillbirth, I was pregnant again within 12 months.

But while many friends seemed relieved it was nine months of torment and fear. I had no confidence in my body to deliver my baby alive and worried constantly.

Not knowing why Mary had died compounded this anxiety and it's this long-term impact of stillbirth that is rarely discussed.

I don't want to be defined by Mary's death or for people to pity me. I have a happy life with a loving family. I don't want the lives of Edie - who was born 14 months later - or Arthur to be overshadowed by their sister's death.

Image caption Emma with her son Arthur

But I do want others to understand Mary was my second child and her death has changed me as a person and a mum.

It has not all been negative. The experience has given me emotional insight and a greater sense of compassion, but it has also left me at times feeling out of step with my peers.

My view of pregnancy has shifted. I don't want to attend friends' baby showers and I worry when they go over their due dates. It's not because I think it will happen to them, but my experience means that I know that it can. That gives me a different perspective.

Meeting other parents who lost a baby this way was comforting. There is a shared knowledge and understanding which helps normalise these feelings.

When your baby is stillborn it changes you profoundly. During my research I met Ruth Rodgers who, after her daughter Scarlett was stillborn, gave up her high-flying City job and is now training to become a midwife.

Many of the experts and clinicians I met speak passionately about the need for us all to talk about stillbirth - the impact it has on families and the effects of shrouding it in silence.

Not talking about stillbirth has arguably held back advances to prevent it. How can we change something we don't acknowledge?

We Need To Talk About Stillbirth is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 11:00 BST, 22 July - catch up on BBC iPlayer Radio

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