State of New Jersey. Department of Health and Senior Services

perinatal mood disorders. speak up when you are down

When Your Baby Dies

The death of a baby violates our expectations. In addition, many people do not recognize the depth of the loss to the parents. The fact that the baby was in the womb or in the parents' arms for such a brief time adds to their pain and isolation.

However, the attachment to a baby can begin even before conception. During the pregnancy, a bond materializes as parents begin to think about the future with their child. When a baby dies, the parents' hopes and dreams for the child have already become a part of their life. Deborah L. Davis is a developmental psychiatrist who specializes in perinatal bereavement, parent education and child development as well as the author of Empty Cradle, Broken Heart.

  • A baby's death upsets the natural order of life. Children are never expected to die before their parents, and most parents feel cheated of the chance to learn about the child because the length of time spent with him or her is so brief.
  • Feelings of responsibility. Parents feel especially responsible for what happened, feelings which arise from the biological urge to protect your child. Mothers tend to feel principally responsible and experience anger at their body's betrayal as well as guilt about things they did or did not do that might have contributed to the baby's death.
  • Loss of the idealized baby. Parents often have difficulty separating the typical idealized fantasies about the baby from the probable realities.
  • Loss of a part of yourself and your future. Fantasies about babies often reflect personal attributes or desires so the loss of a baby may magnify a sense that you have lost a part of yourself. The death of a parent or friend represents a loss of the past, but when a baby dies you lose a part of the future.
  • Lack of memories and rituals of mourning. Dwelling on memories is a way to experience a more gradual goodbye. Unfortunately, when a baby dies before or shortly after birth, there are only a few memories and little tangible evidence that the baby existed. Spending time with the body, arranging a funeral, attending the burial and recognizing a mourning period are rituals designed to support the grieving.
  • Lack of social support. Bereaved parents may feel isolated or unwelcome to talk. In addition to being uncomfortable with the subject of death, many people do not recognize the depth of your loss. It is difficult for them to imagine your grief over a baby you never saw or perhaps held only briefly.
  • Lack of professional support. In the last decade, health professionals have begun to recognize that parents need to grieve after a baby dies. In the past, parents were dissuaded from cradling their dying baby for fear that they might have to endure more painful memories. This deprived them of the chance to express love to their baby in physical ways, and they buried their feelings or felt crazy for having them. Research has now shown what parents have known all along: The death of a baby is a profound loss, and parents need to grieve this loss.

Davis, Deborah L.. (1996). Empty Cradle, Broken Heart. Golden, Colo.: Fulcrum Publishing.