Parents will feel a wide range of emotions after a stillbirth, from sadness to guilt to confusion. But as traumatic as the experience may be, you still need to decide what to do with your little one's remains. Many factors can affect the arrangements you choose, including how far along you were in your pregnancy, your personal beliefs, and the hospital's legal obligations. Here’s how to plan a stillborn baby funeral, with advice for finding closure in your time of despair.
What is Stillbirth?
Stillbirth means the loss of a pregnancy after 20 weeks gestation. It occurs in about 1 percent of pregnancies, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and more than half of cases happen before 28 weeks. Many factors can contribute to this devastating and spontaneous loss, including congenital abnormalities, problems with the placenta, and maternal infection. Oftentimes, though, doctors can’t find any explanation for the stillbirth.
After discovering the stillbirth, the mother still needs to deliver the baby. She may opt to induce labor through medication, but she can also try waiting for labor to happen naturally. Epidurals and medication can help soothe the pain.
Can I See My Stillborn Baby?
After delivering the baby, doctors will usually let you have private moments together, if you desire. During this time, you can hold the baby, take photographs, and collect keepsakes like locks of hair and fingerprints.
You can choose whether you want testing (such as blood testing or genetic testing) to help determine the cause of stillbirth, and whether you want Baby to have a post-mortem exam. Discuss the options with your healthcare provider before making a decision.
How long can you keep a stillborn baby? This varies for everyone, but usually parents get a few precious hours with the little one. It might also be possible to sleep near your infant or take him home before the funeral. Talk to your provider for more information; hospital staff might provide you with a special cold cot to preserve the remains.
Handling Your Stillborn Baby’s Remains
How you handle your baby's remains depends mostly on how far along you were in your pregnancy. Healthcare providers have policies for handling pregnancy loss, and those policies must comply with state laws. Boston Medical Center, for example, says Massachusetts state law requires hospitals, clinics, and midwives to report losses that occur in the 20th week of pregnancy or later, or if the fetus weighs at least 350 grams. (Such stillbirths must be reported to the Department of Public Health and the Registry of Vital Records within 10 days.)
This means that starting in the 20th week of pregnancy, they must treat a pregnancy loss as they would any other death. They will, for example, help the parents manage the remains, find resources for planning a burial or cremation, and connect them with organizations that can help fund burial arrangements, if necessary.
Check with your hospital for the regulations and policies that apply in your case. Be aware that if you want to keep your baby's remains for a burial or cremation, you may need to specifically tell your attending doctors and staff to make sure they know.
Planning a Stillborn Baby Funeral
Some couples let the hospital deal with a stillborn baby’s remains; many medical centers even offer funeral ceremonies by in-house chaplains. Although this is a free or low-cost option, you might not be allowed to choose between burial or cremation, and whether the experience will be individual or shared with other babies. Talk to your hospital for more information.
If you don’t want the hospital to deal with your baby’s remains, you can also plan a stillborn baby funeral yourself. The funeral director will help you through the planning and organizing process, and the baby will likely be kept in the funeral home or in the hospital before the service.
Details of the funeral will be up to your discretion. You might decide on an intimate ceremony with a couple of people, or a larger affair with family and friends. Another important decision is burial or cremation. Some funeral homes might provide free or discounted burial, coffins, and cremation for stillborn babies (although you probably still need to pay for the funeral service, if you have one).
Here are some questions to ask: If you bury your baby, are you likely to move away from the area, and how would that make you feel? Do you want him to wear a special outfit for burial, or be wrapped in a special blanket? If you choose cremation, what would you do with the ashes? Will your other kids get involved with the stillborn baby funeral?
Spiritual and Religious Guidance for Stillbirth
In a paper published by the Luther Seminary, Kathleen Lull Seaton suggests that the trauma of miscarriage can sometimes cause parents to question their faith and can leave grieving parents feeling alone, helpless, and apathetic. If this sounds like you or your partner, seeking the guidance of religion may help you get through this difficult time. Sometimes having a spiritual leader help with funeral preparations can alleviate this type of faith crisis and can help you feel a sense of relief knowing that your house of worship includes your little one within its community.
What About Miscarriage Before 20 Weeks?
If you had a miscarriage (pregnancy loss before 20 weeks) at home, you should seek medical help to make sure you do not have any remaining tissue or placenta inside your uterus, which could cause excessive bleeding or infection. You can decide to plan a burial or cremation yourself, or you can bring the remains with you to the hospital if you would rather have the staff assist you. Note that for miscarriages occurring before 20 weeks' gestation with fetuses weighing less than 350 grams, some medical facilities can dispose of the remains without reporting the death.