Our expert labor nurse reflects on stillbirths, and offers some comforting words of wisdom
The first time I attended a birth where I knew the baby would not live, I'd only been a nurse for a few months. It was a premature delivery at 24 weeks and there was no way to stop that baby from being born. The little girl slipped out of her mother's body into warm waiting blankets. The doctor asked the parents if they wanted to hold their daughter. Whether it was from fear, grief or culture, they did not. So he handed the still-moving baby to me and told me to put her on the counter while we finished taking care of mom. It was a crazy busy night shift and we were desperately understaffed. I knew if I put the baby on the counter the baby would die alone, never having been held, but as a brand new nurse, I also knew that not following doctor's orders and not providing nursing care to Mom meant dereliction of duties.
There must have been an angel nearby who understood my dilemma because another nurse came in at that moment, told me to sit in a rocker and hold the baby near Mom until she was ready to hold her herself. I sat and hummed and let a few tears roll down my cheeks. Within moments, that baby girl was gone. It wasn't long before the doctor finished and left the room without doling out much sympathy to his patient. He was new on the job too and for all I know, hadn't been trained how to be compassionate at a time like this. Once Mom had been cleaned up and tucked into fresh bedding, she asked for her daughter and her grieving began.
That was the first time, but there have been other babies either born too soon or born with physical anomalies incompatible with life. And then there are those that are simply stillborn. The National Institute of Health estimates that out of the 4 million babies born every year in the U.S., there are 26,000 stillbirths. That means 70 American women deliver a stillborn baby every day. As startling as those numbers are, they don't represent a large number of women at risk of losing their babies, but to the women and men who've lived through it, those numbers represent everything. That's why October is designated as National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month.
I spoke with one mother, Karina Bennett, whose baby died at 39 weeks from an umbilical cord accident. Bennett says, "At that point in pregnancy, you're focused on labor. You figure your baby is past the danger point." But then it happened. Her son, Milan, was wrapped up tightly in his cord, which shut off circulation as he descended into the birth canal.
It's a rare, rare thing when a cord is so tightly snaked around a baby's body that it prevents blood from circulating to his vital organs. If it's not caught in time, the results can be fatal. But that's the problem. Most of the time, there are only subtle cues that indicate a perfectly healthy baby is in trouble and too often, parents and providers aren't clued into those cues. That's why Bennett and a team of other mothers who all lost babies created a nonprofit organization called Healthy Birth Day, dedicated to the prevention of stillbirth and infant death through education, advocacy, and support.
As part of their campaign, they've produced three videos about a simple intervention that might prevent thousands of babies from dying each year–counting kicks. The Count the Kicks videos teach parents and providers that by counting how many times a baby kicks within a two-hour window, parents can determine whether their baby is healthy or whether he needs further medical evaluation. If baby isn't moving enough, parents can get medical help, hopefully in time to save a baby before it's too late.
For the babies who we said goodbye to too soon, including Milan, Lilly, Hunter, Ian and others whose names I no longer recall, I just want to say, "I remember you. Thank you for gracing us with your presence."
For mothers approaching your due dates, please be assured that while yes, 70 babies are stillborn every day, almost 12,000 are born alive and well. The chances are, you and your baby are in that statistic. Be well.
Jeanne Faulkner, R.N., lives in Portland, Ore., with her husband and five children. Got a question for Jeanne? Email it to firstname.lastname@example.org and it may be answered in a future blog post.
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