For women who suffer the devastation of an infant loss during pregnancy, emotions can run the gamut. They may feel guilty, angry or even relieved. No matter the feeling, expressing those emotions plays a big role in adapting to life after such a tragic event.
Sadly, infant loss is more common than most people think. Miscarriage, the loss of a baby anytime before the 20th week of pregnancy, occurs in 10 to 15 percent of all pregnancies, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Stillbirth, the loss of a baby anytime after the 20th week, occurs in 1 out of every 100 pregnancies, with an estimated 24,000 stillbirths nationwide each year.
No matter the type of infant loss, health care providers want women to know this fact: It’s not their fault.
“Most infant losses are due to genetic problems with the fetus or the potential baby,” said Dr. Stacey Milunic, a family medicine physician who provides prenatal care and delivers babies at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. “They don’t happen because a woman lifted something too heavy, traveled too far, worried too much or did anything wrong.”
While each woman experiences emotions differently after an infant loss, most will spend the first few weeks trying to come to grips with the fact that it occurred at all.
“It’s common for women to feel like their entire world has crumbled around them for the first few weeks and months,” said Megan Youtz, a clinical counselor with the Hummingbird Program, which offers palliative and supportive care at Penn State Children’s Hospital.
Other feelings may vary based on a woman’s personal pregnancy journey, including factors such as how long she tried to become pregnant, how far along her pregnancy was and what kind of support she has at home.
Providers at the Milton S. Hershey Medical Center take many approaches to help support women and families following infant loss. “We ask open-ended questions – How are you feeling? How are you doing day to day? – to truly understand a woman’s emotions at each stage of her journey,” said Dr. Sarah Horvath, an obstetrician/gynecologist at Hershey Medical Center.
For some women, a ceremony can help provide comfort amid grief. The Medical Center partners with Sweet Grace Ministries in Chambersburg, Pa. The group provides baskets with keepsakes, such as a mold of the baby’s footprints, to women who suffer infant loss closer to their due date. For stillborn children, Medical Center staff maintain a sacred space where parents can give their baby a bath, get them dressed and say goodbye in person.
Providers also help women find local support groups. “Connecting with other people who can identify a similar emotional experience may help ease the pain,” Youtz said.
Confiding in your spouse or partner can help, too. But women should understand that their partners’ emotions may differ from their own. “Partners try hard to be stoic and sometimes neglect to take care of their own emotional needs, so they may need some help, too,” Horvath said.
Another concern: How to talk about infant loss with other children in the family. Younger children may be comfortable with very basic information, but older children likely will ask more sophisticated questions that require an age-appropriate answer.
The emotions surrounding infant loss will continue to arise throughout the rest of a woman’s life, especially at milestones such as a child’s conception date or anticipated birthday. “Women should allow themselves grace and the space to process their emotions,” Youtz said. “This is a journey and it takes time.”
The Medical Minute is a weekly health news feature produced by Penn State Health. Articles feature the expertise of faculty, physicians and staff, and are designed to offer timely, relevant health information of interest to a broad audience.