October is National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month and October 15 is a specific day for parents to remember infants they have lost. This month is an opportunity for parents to know they are not alone in their grief – it’s a moment to reflect on feelings, get involved in pregnancy loss awareness, or even support research.
As a mother who has experienced two miscarriages, I understand the pain of this loss, but also the relief I felt when I knew this happens to a lot more women that we realize. The grief, guilt, and shame that surrounds this type of loss causes so many to hide their experiences rather than inviting people in to grieve with them and support them in their grief – infant loss can be a lonely journey, but it can also be an opportunity to band together in community.
What is Miscarriage?
Miscarriage refers to the death of a baby in the womb before 20 weeks of age. About 10 to 15 of 100 known pregnancies end in miscarriage although the number is likely higher since so many people miscarry without knowing they were pregnant. Most miscarriages happen during the first trimester, or before 13 weeks of gestation and between 1 and 5 % of miscarriages occur during 13 and 19 weeks of pregnancy.
What to know about miscarriages:
It’s very common for women to experience the symptoms of miscarriage and still give birth to perfectly health little ones at full term. However, if you experience these symptoms, it’s a good idea to talk to your health care provider.
Typical symptoms of miscarriage include the following:
- Vaginal bleeding or spotting
- Abdominal pain
- Abdominal cramping
It’s also important to know that the actual causes for miscarriages are still widely unknown. Some possible reasons include:
- Fetal chromosomal abnormalities
- Blighted ovum
- Thyroid disease
- Maternal hormone problems
What Is a Stillbirth?
A stillbirth refers to the delivery of a dead baby after 20 weeks of gestation. Infection and pregnancy complications contribute to most instances of stillbirth. About 24,000 American women experience stillbirth each year, or approximately 1 in 160 pregnancies.
What To Know About Stillbirths:
Stillbirth with an unknown cause is called “unexplained stillbirth.” Having an unexplained stillbirth is more likely to occur the further along a woman is in her pregnancy.
Stillbirth can happen to anyone, but occurs more commonly among certain groups of people including women who:
- are of black race
- are 35 years of age or older
- are of low socioeconomic status
- smoke cigarettes during pregnancy
- have certain medical conditions, such as high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity
- have multiple pregnancies such as triplets or quadruplets
- have had a previous pregnancy loss
According to the CDC, “This does not mean that every individual of black race or older age is at higher risk for having a stillbirth. It simply means that overall as a group, more stillbirths occur among all mothers of black race or older age when compared to white mothers and mothers under 35 years of age. Differences in factors such as maternal health, income, access to quality health care, stress, social and emotional support resources and cultural factors may explain how these factors are related to having a stillbirth. More research is needed to determine the underlying cause of stillbirths in these populations.”
Important Things to Know About Pregnancy Loss
First and foremost, know that you have nothing to be ashamed of. You are not alone. And you will learn how to shape your life around the grief you feel. The most important thing you can do is get support – from therapists, counselors, trusted friends, family, and support groups.
Healing from Miscarriage or Stillbirth
(credit: Very Well Family)
With a very early miscarriage, the physical part of the miscarriage will be like a heavy menstrual period. Your vaginal bleeding may have clots, and you may experience stronger than normal cramping. Typically, over-the-counter pain medication is ok to take, but always check with your doctor first. The bleeding should not remain heavy longer than a few days and will most likely stop entirely within two weeks and you’ll physically feel fairly normal after the bleeding stops. Your menstrual period typically returns within four to six weeks.
When to Call Your Doctor
If you experience any of these symptoms, call your doctor. They may be signs of a complication such as an infection, an incomplete miscarriage, or an ectopic pregnancy.
- Severe cramping that doesn’t stop, or any cramping that lasts more than two weeks
- Heavy bleeding (soaking more than two maxi pads per hour for two hours or more), or any bleeding that lasts more than two weeks
- High fever and/or chills
- Foul-smelling vaginal discharge
Recovery After Surgery
You may or may not experience vaginal bleeding after having a D&C (dilation and curettage) or D&E (dilation and extraction). Your doctor will probably prescribe a painkiller to help with any cramping.
Your doctor may also prescribe antibiotics and/or a medicine to help the uterus stay contracted to minimize bleeding. Most women are able to resume normal activities within a day or two after the procedure, but you may need to avoid tampons and sexual intercourse for about two weeks. This will reduce your odds of developing an infection.
When to Call Your Doctor
If your bleeding is heavy, your cramping is severe, or either lasts more than a few days, let your doctor know. Also be aware of the signs of infection. Along with prolonged bleeding or cramping, these include fever over 100.4 degrees F, chills, foul-smelling vaginal discharge, pelvic pain, tenderness in the uterus, and unusual drowsiness. An infection could be serious, so don’t hesitate to seek medical attention right away.
Recovery After Vaginal Birth
If you had a stillbirth, you may have been medically induced. In the days following your loss, you may pass large blood clots and may have lower abdominal cramping. Using a peri-bottle after going to the restroom will help and your stamina may be reduced for a few days.
The hormonal imbalances will intensify the emotional aspects of your loss. It’s important to be easy on yourself physically and emotionally as you take time to recover.
When to Call Your Doctor
As with a miscarriage, infection can develop after a vaginal stillbirth. Symptoms to look for:
- Fever greater than 100.4 degrees F
- Pain that is worsening instead of decreasing
- Bleeding that is heavy and/or increasing instead of decreasing
- Foul-smelling vaginal discharge
Dealing with Grief
Everyone deals with grief differently. There are no rules or instructions and there’s no right or wrong way for you or your partner to grieve or share feelings. Be patient and caring with each other.
Some ways people might express their grief:
- Someone may not want to discuss the loss and may fill their time with distractions
- Someone may feel like they should stay strong and touch to protect the family
- Someone may be unsure of how to show their feelings
- Someone may try to work through the grief alone
- Someone may want to talk about the death of their baby often and with many people
- Someone may show their feelings often
- Someone may be more likely to ask for a lot of help or go to a place of worship or to a support group
How to Help Siblings Through Pregnancy or Infant Loss
Children understand a lot more than we give them credit for. Most likely, they were growing excited about their sibling and they will experience grief in ways parents may not understand or expect. Ignoring it or not telling them what happened will only make them confused.
Try to be as open and honest about the situation as you can be.
Studies have identified the 3 most important ways to help children who have lost a sibling:
- recognizing and acknowledging the child’s grief
- including them in family rituals
- keeping the memory of the baby alive in the family
Read more about ways to share about pregnancy and infant loss with siblings in an age appropriate way.
Helping Someone Who Has Loss Pregnancy or Infant
One of the best ways to support someone who has lost their pregnancy or infant is to be available. Often people don’t know what they need so telling someone to “let you know what they need ” leaves the ball in their court and they may still feel unsupported. Instead, find ways to support them from a distance until they’re ready for company.
Offer to help with their other kids, send meals, cards, or some gifts like these to let them know they are loved:
Special Ways to Remember Lost Infants
- Name Your Baby
- Wear or Make Memorial Jewelry
- Write About Your Baby
- Plant a memorial tree, garden, or make a keepsake box
- Get a Special Teddy Bear or Pillow for Siblings
- Light a Candle
- Donate to a Charitable Organization