What is neonatal death?
Neonatal death is when a baby dies within the first 28 days of life. Whether a baby dies soon after birth or after surviving a few weeks, it’s a very difficult experience for the whole family.
A baby might die for many reasons in the first 4 weeks after birth. For example, the baby might have been born prematurely, had congenital anomalies (birth defects) or become sick with an infection. Or there might have been complications in labour. And sometimes we just don’t know why.
Your baby’s death can bring intense feelings of grief, emptiness, anger, anxiety and depression. It’s OK to feel however you feel – there’s no one or right way to respond.
Spending time with your baby
Spending time with your baby creates memories and lets you acknowledge your baby as part of your family. Remembering and sharing these memories over time helps some people grieve. How you make memories of your baby is up to you and your family.
It’s OK to take as long as you need. Try not to feel pressured by other people’s expectations or experiences.
Spending time with your baby from birth
If you’ve been told your baby is unlikely to survive beyond 4 weeks, you can still spend time together from the moment your baby is born.
Nurses and midwives can help you hold and cuddle your baby as soon as possible.
You might name your baby and take photos together. And if you have other children, you might give them the chance to meet their sibling and have a photo taken together as a family.
Spending time with your baby when your baby has died
When your baby dies, you’ll have time with your baby. You might spend this time holding and cuddling your baby. You can name your baby, if you hadn’t done this already. Neonatal nurses and midwives can also help you to dress, bathe and take photos of your baby.
If you would like to spend a few days with your baby or take your baby home for a while, speak to your nurse or midwife, who can help to arrange this.
A neonatal death might affect other members of your family – children, grandparents and other relatives. You can decide whether you want to invite them to spend time with your baby.
Doctors, nurses, midwives, social workers, pastoral carers, bereavement midwives and funeral directors will help you with the things you need and want to do after your baby’s death. This includes organising a funeral.
Most hospitals will help you put some photos, footprints and a lock of your baby’s hair into a memory box. You can take this box home with you when you leave the hospital. Some hospitals might be able to look after this box for you until you feel ready to collect it. Or you can ask a trusted family member or friend to collect it for you.
Moving your baby to the funeral home
Your hospital and chosen funeral directors will coordinate your baby’s move to a funeral home. Your baby will be cared for with dignity and respect.
While your baby is at the funeral home, you can still visit your baby up until the burial or cremation. Speak to your funeral director, who can arrange this for you.
For birthing mothers: your body after neonatal death
After birth, you might have some vaginal bleeding for 5-10 days. This can last up to 6 weeks. This is normal. It’s important to see a GP or obstetrician if you have:
- heavy bleeding that doesn’t stop
- severe abdominal cramps
- signs of a fever.
Milk production and breast soreness
Milk suppression – or stopping breastfeeding and expressing – can be physically and emotionally difficult after a neonatal death. It can be a few weeks before your breasts stop producing milk.
To prevent engorged breasts, it helps to express breastmilk sometimes. Express just enough for comfort – expressing too much can stimulate an increase in supply. Or you could talk to your GP or obstetrician about medicines for managing breast discomfort or suppressing milk supply.
Neonatal nurses, midwives and lactation consultants can give you advice and support during this time.
If you have breast pain, swelling, warmth, fever and chills, it’s important to see a GP. This might be the beginnings of mastitis, which is an inflammation of the breast that can lead to an infection. Mastitis can happen when a milk duct becomes blocked. Massaging any lumps or expressing a small amount of milk can help with this.
It’s possible to donate frozen breastmilk to milk banks to feed premature babies. Speak to your nurse or midwife if this is something you’d like to do.
Understanding why your baby died
Your doctor might ask if you’d like to have an autopsy done on your baby to find out more about why your baby died. Knowing why a baby died helps some people grieve. The information might also help doctors give you advice about future pregnancies.
Sometimes an autopsy won’t be able to tell you why your baby died. Even if the autopsy can’t explain your baby’s death, knowing you tried to find out why your baby died can be reassuring.
It can be hard to decide about having an autopsy done on your baby. It’s your choice. Doctors, nurses, midwives, social workers and pastoral carers can explain your options and support you as you decide what’s best.
Getting help after stillbirth
It can help to talk to a trusted family member or friend about your loss. And if you feel you aren’t coping, you might need professional help too.
See your GP, a counsellor or a community spiritual leader, if you have one. A social worker at the hospital or your GP can help you find a local counselling service.
You can also get support by calling:
- Red Nose Grief and Loss on 1300 308 307
- Bears of Hope on 1300 114 673
- Sands on 1300 072 637
- MensLine on 1300 789 978
- Lifeline on 131 114.
Legal information about neonatal death
By law, all neonatal deaths in Australia must be registered with Births Deaths and Marriages in your state or territory. Visit your state or territory’s Births Deaths and Marriages website for more information.
In most states and territories in Australia, it’s also a legal requirement to arrange a burial or cremation for your baby.
In some cases, your baby’s death might require a coroner’s investigation to find out the cause of death. Hospital staff will guide you through this process if it needs to happen.
If your baby has died, you might be eligible for some financial support from Services Australia.