How does stillbirth happen?
There are lots of stories that you read in magazines and online of women who have lost their unborn child after noticing that they had some spotting or bleeding, or after their babies movements had reduced or stopped, or after they had agonizing pains in their stomachs. With Beatrice though I had no symptoms, no idea at all that she’d died until the sonographer told me.
Stillbirth doesn’t discriminate. It can literally happen to anybody at any time. I read somewhere that the risk of your baby dying during pregnancy is 1 in 200. This isn’t 1 in 200 including miscarriages, or 1 in 200 before your 12 week scan, this is 1 in 200 every single day of being pregnant. That’s a scary thought. It’s so scary that nobody really wants to think about it. When I was pregnant I read in my maternity policy at work that women who had a stillbirth were entitled to their full maternity leave and do you know what I thought? How awful, but that’s not going to happen to me and so I skipped that section.
But of course it did happen to me.
My pregnancy with Beatrice, apart from the usual fatigue and morning all day long sickness was completely normal. I’d gone off tea, which was an unpleasant surprise (I love tea and can and often do drink it by the bucket load), I’d had no weird food cravings and my bump was growing nicely with zero stretch marks (win!). We had three scans in total, an early one to share with family at my sister’s wedding, and all went by easily with all milestones on track and a strong healthy heartbeat. I never felt her kick, but as my placenta was at the front I was assured this was normal and I shouldn’t worry as she’d need to be quite a bit bigger and stronger for me to feel her. So I wasn’t worried about that. In fact I actually didn’t worry about anything in my pregnancy, not even the prospect of child birth, my attitude was I didn’t need a birth plan I’d just push the baby out when it came (and pray for only 15 minutes of labour).
It wasn’t until I went for a 25 week antenatal appointment that I learnt something was wrong. I laid back on the bed ready to hear baby’s heartbeat (we still didn’t know the sex at this point) with the Doppler and there was just white noise. Anyone who’s heard a baby’s heartbeat knows how loud and clear it is, so when there was just white noise I knew something wasn’t right. I remember wanting to know why it was so quiet but at the same time being too scared to ask the midwife. I remember thinking, what if we become one of those couples whose baby dies, who after they leave a room people say “They’re the ones whose baby I told you about, the ones whose baby died”. And then immediately after thinking that I was really self-centred for worrying about that! When the second midwife was called for I knew what was happening, I just laid there and cried. The second midwife was trying to make small talk, no doubt in a feeble attempt to stop me crying, but for any antenatal midwives reading this – please don’t ever do this at this time – EVER. My baby doesn’t have a heartbeat and you’re asking me where I work and where I’m from, what I ate for lunch. Seriously just don’t do it. All it did was anger me and make me feel less in control as no-one wanted to tell me the truth. It’s making me really angry now when I think that no-one would just say we can’t hear a heartbeat and so we need you to have an urgent scan, we’re worried about your baby.
After what felt like an absolute eternity, I had an ultrasound scan (that actually makes it 4 scans) and after an excruciating few seconds of me willing with all my might for baby to do something, anything, she held my hand and told me that she was really sorry but there was no heartbeat. And just like that it was all over. At this point I just broke down, but it was almost like an out of body experience. Like it was happening to someone else and I was watching. I was so upset and I couldn’t stop crying, but at the same time I didn’t really know why I was crying. I was starting to panic though, because again even though nobody would tell me what happens next, I knew I would have to give birth to this baby. Whilst I wasn’t worried before I soon became worried when it was for the delivery of a baby who wasn’t alive.
At this point you may be wondering why I’m saying “I” instead of “we”, but in all our wisdom we thought that as this was a run of the mill, pee in a pot and measure your BP appointment, Jamie didn’t need to be there. So this was the first of many awful phone calls, ringing Jamie to tell him that we’d lost our baby. You see the problem with people not talking to you in hospital and just telling you what’s going on, means that I thought I could meet Jamie at home once the midwives had told me what happens next. That seems to be a common theme here doesn’t it, me just cracking on with things as if they’re just another simple task on a to-do list. Long story short my manager invited herself in, to which I am eternally grateful and basically told me that Jamie needed to come to the hospital and that she would go get him herself. And so in what must have been a record time for public transport Jamie managed to get from central London to mid Essex.
Luckily the hospital I was at had employed a bereavement midwife (yes this is a job!) a few months earlier and she was absolutely amazing. I know lots of people don’t get this “luxury”, and I really do feel for those families, because without our midwife I honestly don’t know how we would have coped. One of the first things she said was that Jamie should come to the hospital. Our bereavement midwife did everything perfect, she was direct, honest and just told us like it was, no frills attached, but she did it with compassion never once making it feel like a patient/healthcare professional relationship, but instead like she’d known us for years. She kept referring to our baby as “your baby” rather than just a pregnancy which sounds pretty obvious, but at that point we weren’t thinking about the reality of losing our daughter, we were just in shock it had happened at all. She assured me that I had done nothing wrong, nor could we have foreseen or prevented it from occurring. Which sounds awful and completely inescapable, but it was and still is that, she just made sure that I knew it was not my fault. I took some medication to indicate to my body that the pregnancy was over and was asked to come back in 48 hours to be induced.
So basically after doing everything right in pregnancy – taking folic acid, not drinking, not smoking, regular exercise, eating well, drinking lots of water, sleeping on my left side – and not having any tell-tale symptoms, it still happened. Beatrice still died. At this point we don’t know the answers as to why until the results from the post-mortem come back and even then we may never know the reason.
I don’t want to go into the birth on this post as I think it’s a lot to type, never mind read! But what I do want to say is that what I’ve learnt and what I hope that you as the reader are starting to realise (if you didn’t already) is that miscarriage, stillbirth and neonatal death happens every day whether we like it or not. 15 babies die every day in the UK, so not thinking about it – like I did – isn’t really an option as it won’t stop it from happening. Thinking about it wouldn’t have prepared me anymore for what has happened, not at all, nothing can do that. But thinking about baby loss and actually talking about baby loss – that has the power to bring baby loss into the spotlight so that we can stop thinking it only happens to other people. Because it doesn’t.