How Do I Move on With Life After Stillbirth?
Stillbirth, when a baby dies in the womb after 20 weeks of pregnancy or during delivery, is a devastating experience for everyone involved. The physical and emotional distress can feel as though it will never end. While you'll never forget the baby you almost had, you can find a new way to move forward.
Dealing with the physical effects of a stillbirth
With a stillbirth, the birthing process continues, whether it's natural labor, induced labor or a cesarean section. Whether the baby arrived during vaginal delivery or a cesarean, the birthing parent may experience typical postnatal physical symptoms in the following weeks.
The physical effects of a stillbirth include:
- Sore breasts
- Postpartum bleeding, or lochia
- Perineal pain or swelling
- Body aches and pain
- Abdominal cramping
Most of these symptoms subside within six weeks. If you find your symptoms particularly difficult, if they persist or get worse, speak to your doctor about painkillers or other forms of symptom relief if you're struggling.
Managing your mental health after a stillbirth
For all the physical discomfort, the impact of stillbirth on your mental health can be far more difficult.
"The death of a child through stillbirth is a devastating experience and, for some, can trigger conditions including anxiety or depression," said Sarah Welsh, a gynecologist and founder of the sexual wellness brand HANX, based in the United Kingdom. "It's common to experience emotional distress, including feelings of guilt, anger, hopelessness or despair. This, plus the natural dropping of hormone levels post-birth, create a low mood."
Many people don't know why they experienced a stillbirth because most are defined as "unexplained," Welsh said.
"You may struggle with guilt or anger after stillbirth, wondering why it happened and if you could have done anything differently to avoid it, especially if a postmortem does not offer a clear-cut solution," Welsh said.
These feelings can make processing the experience very difficult. Processing a stillbirth alongside your partner can also be very difficult, as everyone's responses are different. You might not feel the same way at the same time.
"If in a relationship, either partner may struggle with the other's grief response, considering it variously disproportionate,” Welsh said.
She recommended looking into counseling to help navigate the experience together.
It's also common to feel strong maternal instincts after a stillbirth. After all, you have been through pregnancy and birth, which can be confusing and upsetting.
"Coming together, virtually or online, with those who have also experienced this can be helpful and cathartic," Welsh suggested. "Speaking to loved ones about your baby, acknowledging and sharing their story and using their name can be a source of comfort for many, too."
It might be hard to define how you're feeling after a stillbirth. Some people describe their symptoms as a form of postnatal depression, while others consider it something closer to grief.
"It can be difficult to differentiate between postnatal depression and grief following a stillbirth," Welsh said, explaining that this is something you can work through with a medical professional or a therapist.
"Grief is an expected and reasonable reaction to the loss of a baby and requires understanding, patience and support. Many experience it as feeling numb, sad, angry and guilty. With time, these painful feelings evolve into acceptance of the loss," Welsh said.
Be patient with yourself and your partner. Your emotional response may vary from your partner's that's OK. If you or your partner feel overwhelmed, reach out to your healthcare professional for help.
Getting pregnant again after a stillbirth
For some couples, the idea of trying for a baby after a stillbirth is too much. Give yourself time to process what you've been through mentally. There is no right answer to deciding to try for another baby. Try not to put too much pressure on yourself or your partner.
Some people get an autopsy of their stillborn baby to figure out why the death occurred, which can be helpful if you're trying for another baby.
"The postmortem may identify a cause of death or health conditions that will be helpful for your healthcare provider to know when caring for you in future pregnancies," Welsh said, adding that it can also be useful for processing the experience. "Having an answer to why the stillbirth happened can be an important element of coming to terms with the experience."
Most people get their first period within five or six weeks after a stillbirth.
"As ovulation tends to occur around two weeks before your period, there is a chance you could get pregnant very quickly," Welsh said. "It's important to allow your body time to heal from any physical procedures, such as an episiotomy, or tearing and that you feel mentally prepared for another pregnancy."
Anyone who had a C-section usually needs to wait at least six months until trying to conceive again, as the recovery time is longer than with vaginal delivery. It's a good idea to speak to your healthcare professional if you're looking to get pregnant again in the next year or two after a C-section.
"If you are taking time to rest before considering trying for another baby, remember to use contraception such as condoms even if you are unsure whether you are fertile again," Welsh recommended.
In the past, experts advised that people should wait a year before trying to get pregnant again after a stillbirth. However, a 2019 study of over 14,000 births suggested no increased risk of adverse outcomes when conception happened earlier than the recommended yearlong wait.
The bottom line
Don't rush your physical or emotional recovery. Decide when you and your partner feel ready to try again. Speak to a healthcare professional if you are struggling with your stillbirth or when you want to conceive.
If you need a doctor, turn to Giddy Telehealth. Connecting to a healthcare professional across the full spectrum of specialties is easy. Whether you want a therapist to support you during your recovery or you need a new doctor as you try again after a stillbirth, you'll have plenty of options.