Caring for patients who experience stillbirth: Dos and don’ts


As a provider whose passion is helping women after stillbirth or neonatal loss, I get many transfers of women from their previous practice after a loss. Sometimes they transfer because they need a “fresh start,” but often, it is because they were let down by the practice – not by the medical care they received but by the emotional care and support and what was said or not said after the loss of the baby. A 2014 meta-analysis in the British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology found that “Parents regarded contacts with health professionals as their central source of reassurance; but experiences often fell short of expectations.”1 I decided to conduct a survey via local and national support groups about what “loss parents” felt helpful or not helpful after the loss of a child. I purposely made these quotes the dominant part of this article, as I believe our patients are often our best teachers.

Inappropriate comments providers make

A very common theme among loss parents was how providers had made comments about how rare stillbirth is after it had just happened to them. Parents expressed that they felt this statistic kept them from getting the care that they needed prior to their loss and then they were told to not worry. Some example quotes include:

“ ‘This only happens to 1% of babies. Very rare.’ (It happened to our baby, and we have to live with this grief our whole lives. She is more than a statistic. She was our hopes, dreams, and future.)”

“I wish doctors didn’t wait to act based on statistics. There’s a lot of us in the 1% of unlikely occurrences.”

“For me, when my practice brushed off my feelings, I knew in my gut something was wrong. They said, ‘We need to wean you from worrying.’”

Another very common theme from parents included examples of helpful and not helpful care they received in the hospital.

Help parents make good memories

Dr. Heather Florescue, an ob.gyn. in private practice at Women Gynecology and Childbirth Associates in Rochester, N.Y.

Dr. Heather Florescue

Many parents mentioned the importance of providing resources for after they go home. Most labor and delivery units have pregnancy loss services and have improved on the care they provide for loss families. One very common positive comment responded to the memories that nurses and providers helped them make after delivery. One parent said the following:

“While with baby and after loss, I think it’s really important to give ideas of what to do/experiences because the moments are so fleeting, and I needed someone to say, ‘You can dress him.’ ‘Let’s take pictures of his toes.’ ‘Save breast milk, etc.’”

“I appreciated the doctors and nurses who acknowledged my child, who looked at him and humanized him. One nurse even held him, which I still love her to this day for.”

“Explain things over, over, and over again, like you are explaining it to a child. I didn’t know what a cuddle cot was, and I didn’t use it because I didn’t understand.”

“Give suggestions and stress the importance of making memories. There are things I wish I did and now regret not doing. Taking pictures, handprints, lock of hair, giving the baby a bath.”

“For unknown losses give a full explanation of the autopsy and what it entails. Parents are making SO many decisions, and they need guidance.”

“Don’t shy away from it. It happened, and it is important to be human and compassionate. If you cannot do it, find someone else who can.”

“Ask to hold the baby and comment how beautiful the baby is. Treat the baby as if it were living.”


Next Article: