Warning: This question is about dead babies, and may make you sad

I saw an episode of ER a few months ago, in which a character was pregnant. Her baby died in utero, but the doctors at the hospital said she needed to bring it to term and give birth to it “normally.” This occured. The doctors then insisted that she needed to hold the dead baby, and that this was the action most conducive to her emotional health.

My question is, is this for real? Do doctors really think women should hold their dead babies when they are stillborn? This seems utterly horrific to me.

Is this just something the writers of the show made up?

Is there a standard medical opinion on this?


An aunt and the wife of a friend of mine both have had stillborn babies in the last few years. My aunt new five or six months in advance that her son would not survive birth: my friend and his wife had a weekend’s notice.

In both cases they bathed, dressed, and held their children for several hours. In both cases they named and buried their children, even though they were never legally people–there is no birth certificate.

My mother was with my aunt when her son was born, and she also help the baby. It doesn’t make a lot of sense if you aren’t there, but when you are it’s just the obvious thing to do–spending time with a body isn’t much, but when it’s all you are ever going to get, you take it. My mother says that it’s surreal to look back at the photos of herself holding the baby–in retrospect, it seemed almost grotesque, but at the time it seemed natural.

In a much smaller way, I had the same experience looking at my friend’s pictures of his daughter–Having learned something from my aunt’s experience, I told him not long after her birth/death that I would be happy to look at the photos if he wanted to show her off–and three weeks later he hunted me down with a photo album and we looked at photos. Later, I almost collapsed with delayed emotional reaction–I had been looking at a dead baby, but at the time, it wasn’t like that at all–it was just like looking at any other set of baby pictures (“Oh, she’s got your nose. Whose fault are those ears?!”)

Spending time with the body makes it a person, not a piece of medical waste. It’s not easier to mourn a person, instead of just a potential, but it does feel more meaningful.

That said, my aunt’s baby was alive up until a momment or two before he was born. My friend found out his baby had died on Friday and they didn’t induce labor until the following Monday. I don’t know if I could have handled carrying a dead baby that long, but I think they were pretty much in shock.

I find it very sad, but completely understandable.

I myself was born two months premature, as the older of two identical twins, and my brother did not survive. I believe he held on for several hours, maybe even a day, before passing away.

My parents are very reluctant to talk about it. No, make that refuse to talk about it. They profess not to know what happened to him, which shocks me deeply (especially now that I am a father). When I recently brought the subject up again, insisting they must have given some kind of decision in the matter, my mother got very emotional and emphatically changed the subject.

They never had any more children, so I grew up an only child. I frequently had fantasies of being one of those “separated at birth” twins, as though for some reason my twin had not died but been adopted out, or even stolen/kidnapped and raised somewhere not too far away, and that I would just randomly bump into him someday in one of those surreal, out-of-the-blue moments in life.

I know what his name was/would have been. When my son was born I suggested to my wife that we might name him after my lost brother. She said that might be a good way to give my mother a heart attack. I suppose she was right.

I went so far as to write a letter to the hospital I was born in, asking what might have been done with the body in such cases. Is it automatically “donated to science”? Cremated?

My parents have told me they were not allowed to “handle” me until I was a certain weight. I have seen pictures of me in an incubator, and they have kept my first Christmas card (I was born on December 16th) which was taped to the incubator, with wishes from my parents that I come home soon.

There are no pictures of my brother in an incubator, or any at all, that I have ever seen. Yet I can well imagine that they asked to hold the baby they weren’t allowed to while he was living… For just a few moments in death.

I am weeping now, and have to stop

Before the current practices to allow the parents mourning time (and if you are a parent, that would almost certainly have been the case at your birth–the newer practice is very new in most places), the hospitals actually did find ways to “encourage” the parents to simply let the hospital take the body away to be prepared for burial. In some cases, parents were told “this is how it is done” and no options were discussed. I suspect that the lack of a formal grieving process contributed heavily to reactions such as those your parents’ have experienced.

I do not fault the hospital staffs, too much: throughout the twentieth century there was a general movement to put death at arm’s length in the U.S. and they probably felt they were doing the right thing in “protecting” the parents from the hurt of grief. It was not until Elisabeth Kübler-Ross began to challenge those ideas (however much of a kook she may have become later) that the medical and psych communities began to reassess their practices and begin to look for ways to let people actually grieve and come to terms with their mourning.

To play pop psychologist for a moment, folks such as your parents probably have a whole slew of unresolved issues that make it nearly impossible to talk about it even years later, since they were never “allowed” to talk about it at the time.

I am the father of a stillborn baby boy. He was delivered at full term, 38 weeks. His demise was unexpected and unexplained. He probably died of a cord accident about twenty-four to forty-eight hours prior to delivery. We did not know of his demise until we went to the hospital for delivery (in the middle of the night, no less) and the fetal monitors could not locate a heartbeat or any other fetal sounds. To make life even more interesting, my wife suffered an eclamptic seisure four days later. Therefore, I feel qualified to comment on this topic.

Frylock, unless you’ve been there, you cannot understand. It is easily the most unbelievable, un-understandable, unfair moment of my (and my family’s) life. I would not wish that experience on anyone. I can still hear my mother screaming when I called her at 6:00AM and told her. I can see the faces of my wife and all the doctors and nurses. I can see my mother-in-law’s expression (she was there). Most of all, I can remember going out into the hall and explaining to my other two kids, then aged 13 and 8, what had happened. They asked why no one was doing anything. You can imagine, but it’s worse.

As for holding the baby – we did it many times. The baby was brought to us in the labor and delivery room, just as any normal birth. (The baby was delivered via a previously planned Cesearian.) We and both sets of grandparents held him. I have tons of pictures, just as any other sort of birth. They are the strangest pictures – they look perfectly normal until you look into the people’s eyes. There is a hollowness to everyone’s expressions.

After the guests had left, we also held the baby privately, with just me and my wife, and later, with us and our other kids. We even took a family picture. It is the only complete family picture we will ever have. At one point, I was holding the baby and a wave of panic came over me and had sat down hard – holding your dead child is the most unnatural, yet strangely natural thing. Your whole body screams that this is wrong and something must be done.

Each time we visited with the baby, the hospital’s chaplain brought him. We asked him to bring him in a warm blanket. The cold of the refrigerator was too much to bear.

I have no idea what standard medical opinion is, but our child was born in a very large, urban hospital. None of the staff indicated that what we were doing was out of the ordinary. They were extremely helpful in so many ways – nurses are angels sent from Heaven. The pictures we have are archived like nothing else we have. The physical pictures and negatives are in a safe deposit box purchased just for this purpose. All of the pictures were scanned and are archived on two hard drives. They are also saved to CD’s stored in four seperate locations. Short of the complete destruction of the entire state of Texas, those pictures will survive. They are unbelievably important. This evening, I have been backing up my computer’s data in preparation for a complete reformat tomorrow. Those pictures will be checked and triple checked before the wipe.

We have survived and have had many wonderful, happy experiences in the three years since then. However, it is a hurt that is as fresh as if it happened today. Right now, on the desk in front of me, is the computer sketch of his headstone. We ordered it two weeks ago and have approved the final design today. This is a big step because it’s the last step. After the headstone, there is nothing left to do for him. Even after three years, we still have a bedroom with baby furniture and baby clothes hanging in the closet and folded in the dresser.

I know that this is a long answer to your question, but I wanted to impress upon you just how important holding the baby is. If this happens to you, it is the only chance you will ever have to hold your child. If you don’t do it, you will regret it for the rest of your life. It never goes away.

Why in the h*** is the Google ad on this page “Humor Writing Workshops”? It seems that Google has a sick sense of humor.

Never heard of dead baby jokes?

I used to love those. But I was a teenager, and male.

This is indeed an incredibly sad thread. :frowning:

This part is probably sort-of true; in most cases, it seems that the least possible intervention is desirable; i.e. no induction if labour seems imminent; no caesarian if normal labour looks possible, etc.

Insistence would seem unusual, perhaps horrific, but there’s nothing deviant about holding a dead baby; our first two pregnancies ended with miscarriage/stillbirth (As it happens, they were close to the borderline that defines the difference between miscarriage and stillbirth); the medical staff were very sympathetic and carefully discussed the various options; i.e. did we want to see ‘the baby’ (smart enough to use non-medical terms at such an emotional time, even if such terms were not strictly accurate); did we want to hold it, etc.

So, in both cases, after delivery of the tiny, but fully and perfectly formed baby, they cleaned them up, wrapped them in towels and let us take time to come to terms with the situation. It helped with closure etc. I think.

In fact, in our cases, despite it not being remotely obligatory, the hospital offered the option of funerals; as practicing Christians, we welcomed this; everything was funded and organised by the hospital/city council and the simple formalities were conducted by the minister from our own church. I’m sure that many would regard this as frivolous and unnecessary, but I think the hospital was taking a holistic view, to include the psychological wellbeing of the parents; a stitch in time to save nine, as it were.

I have friends who suffered through this also. Their baby girl’s skull failed to develop as it should have, and her brain grew outside of her skull in the womb.

My friend decided to take the baby to full term, and deliver her naturally… I have yet to meet another human with that amount of courage.

The baby, of course, did not live but for a few minutes. They washed and dressed her, and held her for pictures.

Frylock, this isnt’ about Standard Medical Procedure. This is about bearing a child for several months, feeling her quicken in your womb. To use an awkward term, this is about closure. And seeing the beautiful person who once was … amongst us.

BTW DrumGod and Robardin ((((hugs))))

Man alive I wish I’d heeded the warning in the title.
I can’t think of a worse thing to get through and those of you that have are stronger than I’ll every be.
Yup, blubing now.
Note to self : Heed the warnings!

Members of my family have been through this experience in very different times.

In 1955, my grandmother gave birth to a baby girl named Christine. The baby was taken away as soon as she was born without explanation - they were told they had a healthy baby girl and that was all. After several hours, my grandparents were told the baby had kidney problems and would not live. Neither were permitted to see their dying baby. Christine passed away within the day without either of my grandparents ever seeing or holding her, and nothing changed after her death. My grandmother was not even permitted to attend the funeral of the baby she never knew. The attitude of the medical staff was that Christine should be forgotten about, and the doctor advised my grandmother to have another child as soon as possible. The paperwork for her birth was filled in but the hospital apparently didn’t bother to submit it (she was born alive, she was entitled to a birth certificate but the birth wasn’t registered even thought the death was). They didn’t even bother to put her name on her death certificate - 50 years later when I applied for it, I discovered her death was registered as “Baby Wilton”. In short, the attitude when a baby died back then was so dismissive and callous as to be unthinkable today.

Forty-two years later, in 1998, one of Christine’s younger brothers lost a child of his own. At thirty-some-odd weeks (I can’t remember exactly, but I think it was around 32 or 33 perhaps?) a routine checkup found one of the twin boys his wife was carrying no longer had a heartbeat. She was immediately hospitalised, put on steroids to strengthen the remaining twin’s lungs and a c-section was scheduled for two days later. A healthy (though early) Samuel was welcomed into our family with much joy, while at the same time his silent twin Casey brought much sorrow. Very confusing, very conflicting time. The medical staff made sure my aunt and uncle were able to spend as much time as they pleased with Casey, encouraging them to do so as it would be all the time they would ever get, and no amount of regret in the future would change that. They were encouraged to take photographs if they liked (they chose not to, as I understand Casey’s features were marred somewhat), and they were given a card with his hand and footprints stamped on them. Councelling was provided by the hospital and even the local funeral directors offered their services free of charge.

Forty-two years has seen a lot of changes in the way stillbirths are treated and these days they tend towards the compassionate, knowing that nothing can take away the pain of losing a child but that simple steps like allowing the parents to hold their child and spend as much time as they together can helps in the grieving and healing process. A grieving family may not feel able to cope with seeing and holding the baby they just lost, but all those I’ve known who’ve gone through this look back on that time as the most precious because it is all the time they ever had. If it takes medical staff urging them to do it then that’s what needs to be done because you can’t change your mind a month or a year down the track.

Read this thread started by Doper zut: As I gaze upon my dead children

To not let the parents interact with their dead child is to try to deny the existance of the child and to never have closure. That is extremely cruel, unncessary and totally unforgiveable.

If I remember that episode of ER correctly, the doctor that was insisting that the mother hold her baby was the baby’s father. So the dynamic between the characters might not be what would normally happen between a typical patient and doctor. It was a very sad episode. I remember crying while watching it.

My parents lost their first son 2 days after he was born. They don’t talk about him much, and I haven’t asked more than the rough basics of what happened. I’m fairly sure they spent time with him, back in 1974, but he probably would have been tied up to machines and such. He had some malformed organs; diaphragm was missing, or partly formed, which messed up his heart and lungs. My mother will occasionally mention him, and how hard it was to lose him, but she has three (mostly) healthy children since then, and she’d rather talk about how happy she is about us. My father almost never mentions him. He’s never been a very open and talkative person, and I know his drinking (he’s sober now) was partly fueled by the loss of his son.

The odd thing is, since I was born 7+ years later, I don’t tend to think of him as “my brother”. I tend to say I have one brother (2 years older) and one sister (2 years younger), but officially, I do have 2 brothers. He lived, he died. I just never knew him. My brother says he has one brother and two sisters. My sister is like me - she says one of each.

I too, used to fantasize about him, thinking what if he hadn’t died, what if he’d been kidnapped, would I recognise him on the street? What would it be like to have a brother that was that much older than me? The “cool” guy, off to university while I was barely in high school?

Without having known him, without even feeling like he was my brother, I find that I miss him a lot. And I know that can’t come close to comparing to what my parents must feel, or what any of you who have posted here have gone through.

It truly is sad.

I delivered a few stillbirths in my career.

It’s definitely best to give mom the opportunity to see and hold the infant. This will help make the death more “real” in the longer run. It makes acceptance easier, and it helps counter troubling thoughts that the baby was ‘stolen’ from her (which do occur often, even if mom is fully rational and knows that such a thing is not factually true). Such actions help mom (and others) to viscerally accept the death on a deeper emotional level.

What about carrying to term though? That seems odd. My mother’s pregnnacy right before me, #5, died in utero. Her OB sent her to another hospital where another doctor performed a D&C, since he didn’t feel he was as qualified as his colleague.

That thread has me in tears.

I agree with Annie here, btw. I work for an organization that has plenty of contact with mothers who have lost one or more babies, and you never ignore the dead baby. Usually they at least want to talk about it, to tell you about the few moments that they had with their little girl/boy.

We have instituted a great program of taking high-quality digital pictures of the preemie babies in the hospital all the time now. We took one of a gentleman’s child right before the baby was going into surgery. The baby did not make it, and we sent the picture in a beautiful frame to his house with the appropriate bereavement materials. He came into the office a few days later, crying, saying “What kind of an organization, a company, is so kind? This is the only picture I’ll ever have of my beautiful son.” I have never forgotten that man.

A quick question about birth certificates: mine has an entry “Birth: Live”. Presumably it would be filled in “Birth: Still”, in the sad other case. So the question is whether birth certficates are always issued. Does it depend on the state?

Over seventy years ago my grandmother gave birth to a daughter that either died just before birth, or almost immediately after. Grandma never saw the baby, although she thinks her husband, my grandfather, may have. She was told she shouldn’t see the baby, it would be too painful, but as to why it would have been painful she doesn’t know. Mentally painful? Was the child grossly deformed?

Grandma had already borne two healthy daughters, one of which was my mother, and later bore another daughter. But she once told me that on occasion she still experiences deep regret that she was seperated from any contact with the girl. They did name her, Mary, and she lies in a plot beside my grandfather. Someday my grandmother will be on the other side. At 101 it can’t be all that long before she will get to meet the daughter she never knew.

If seventy years of wondering can be avoided by holding a baby, then hold the baby! My grandmother didn’t have her life overshadowed comepletely by this experience, she was a happy, stable, woman. But even happy stable people can have moments of pain, and she shouldn’t have had to. Thank goodness practices can be different now, and the dictates of doctors are no longer taken as if they came from the mouth of God.

I had a roommate who once told me that when she was 17 or so, she was pregnant, and found out at about 5 months, that the baby was dead. She told me that she had to carry it until she was 9 months, and then had to deliver it naturally.

I cannot figure out one single reason for this, and I have no idea if she was even telling the truth (she was a bit of an odd duck in some ways).

Does anyone know if this makes any sense?

As for the OP, as a mother to a baby girl, this entire thread has me crying, especially Drum God’s post. I know it’s been three years, but I extend my sympathies to you and your wife for such a heartbreaking tragedy.