Despite advances in pregnancy care, each year in the U.S. there are approximately 50,000 stillbirths and infant deaths shortly after delivery, a rate that hasn’t budged in years. Some are the result of genetic abnormalities or unanticipated complications, but often there is no known cause.
Now, as researchers learn more about the traumatic effects of such deaths on families, more hospitals are creating programs to help them cope. So-called perinatal-loss coordinators train staff to provide compassionate care and guidance for both practical and emotional issues. They are connecting grieving parents with support groups, counseling and nonprofit advocacy groups that help mothers move on and in many cases try again for a successful pregnancy.
Without such intervention, mothers especially are at high risk for mental health disorders, says Katherine Gold, an assistant professor of family medicine and obstetrics and gynecology at University of Michigan. In a study she led of more than 600 women, published in March in the Journal of Women’s Health, those who experienced stillbirth or an early infant death had sharply higher risks for depression and post-traumatic stress than women who had delivered a healthy baby. Nine months after a loss they showed high levels of distress, but a minority of them was getting any kind of counseling, medication, group therapy or other treatment.
“It is really important that we deal with families in a sensitive way that helps them get better, rather than making things worse,” says Dr. Gold. Labor and delivery teams at the university’s hospitals are offered monthly seminars on reproductive loss to help them deliver empathetic care. Such training can also help doctors and nurses cope with their own trauma after a death in their care, she says.
“In the U.S., we currently have no protocols or standards for support when a woman suffers a stillbirth or neonatal loss” says Nicole Barsalona, founder of the nonprofit Mommy Interrupted. Ms. Barsalona, who lives in Boston, is working with a number of organizations on programs to help families and train medical professionals. She was on vacation in Europe when her daughter Olivia was stillborn in a London hospital in 2014.