My journey with stillbirth goes back over 30 years. It began when I was an obstetrician to whom mothers of stillborn babies were referred. I was faced with questions of why babies died but also why different mothers with different pregnancies were treated with identical care. I realized there were huge gaps in terms of what we knew about stillbirth and what remained a mystery, and why.
Although we are becoming increasingly better informed on the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of stillbirth, we will never completely eliminate it. Stillbirth is relatively common. Many women think ‘It can’t happen to me’ but it can, and does, even when things seem to be going well in the pregnancy. However, with the right tailored care for mothers and babies, we believe we can reduce rates of stillbirth by 20-30%.
‘The Safer Baby Bundle’ we introduced in late 2019 is a bundle of care which promotes best practice for clinicians, increases awareness for pregnant mothers and improves the health and survival rates for babies of all ethnicities. These are educational, evidence-based interventions that also dispel some of the many myths around stillbirth.
The first myth is ‘smoking won’t harm the baby’. Amazingly, 10-15% of mothers continue to smoke through their pregnancy. Yet science clearly tells us smoking, obesity, mature age and ethnicity of mothers are all key risk factors in stillbirth.
The second myth is that ‘decreased fetal movement late in a pregnancy is normal and nothing to be alarmed about’. Wrong. Evidence tells us stillbirth can happen early or late in a pregnancy with equally devastating results. Movements matter.
The Safer Baby Bundle strongly promotes maternal side sleeping. Although it’s more common advice in Australia, it’s fast becoming a consensus across the world too. Side sleeping is an example of a simple preventative measure that needs to become embedded as routine in the minds of clinicians and pregnant mothers.
Australia leads the world in many areas of stillbirth research and 2019’s Senate inquiry into stillbirth was a big step forward. But we still have a long way to go. Australia must continue to stand in the first division of researchers and advocates because the US has no national approach and the UK’s National Health Service struggles to get political eyes and stillbirth research is very reliant on philanthropic and charitable support.
In a multicultural society such as Australia, with so many different cultures, there will never be just one way. It’s vital we adapt our care specific to each individual. Where we can unite is to acknowledge stillborn babies as members of our family. Mothers of stillborn babies are real mothers and stillborn babies do have names.
The bond between a mother and her child starts early and it never ends. Even for grandmothers and great-grandmothers who went through this 40, 50, 60 years ago when stillbirth wasn’t acknowledged and was still a taboo subject, the birth of a grandchild can bring it all back. The pain may fade but the grieving goes on.
David Ellwood is Professor of Obstetrics & Gynaecology at Griffith University, School of Medicine and one of the architects, with Professor Vicki Flenady, of the Safer Baby Bundle.