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When Being Prepared isn't Enough - Supporting Parents When a Baby Dies

While the majority of people haven't found the courage yet to talk with expectant parents about the risk of losing a child, how to survive such tragedies and continue to live, we need to be even more diligent in ensuring that we have experienced specialists in place that are available every time parents are facing the tragedy of losing their baby.
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Having your first child can feel a little overwhelming at times given all the things new parents don't know and haven't yet experienced. So we prepared, or so we thought. We had attended multiple workshops on topics such as breastfeeding basics or first-time parenting. We had toured the hospital and spoken to friends who had already been through the experience. We had spent countless hours on the internet researching everything: non-toxic baby essentials like lotions, how to create a safe sleep environment, the best and safest stroller, a highly-rated car seat and much more. Looking back I have to say that we prepared for the best-case scenario like so many others.

When the big day finally arrived we went into the hospital like any other parent to welcome our first child into our family. I was nervous despite all the preparation. As with other rare milestones in life -- the first kiss, moving in together, getting married, buying a house -- there is really no way to understand until you experience them. Talking about these does not really prepare anyone for when they really happen. So my expectations were somewhat like that: I knew enough about childbirth in theory, but would probably be surprised about a lot of things -- the intensity of my wife's pain in labour, how helpless I would feel not being able to support her during the contractions in any significant way or the tiredness following everything.

But it all came differently. Nothing, absolutely nothing had prepared us for the pain and challenges we were going to face. The entire birth did not play out like we had learned during the workshops, not at all like we had read. My wife progressed rapidly through the stages of labour. After hours and hours suddenly an emergency procedure was initiated. The delivery suite exploded with activity; more than a dozen people were in the room. My wife was screaming to find out what was going on, there was blood everywhere, and our baby was born in the middle of this. It all happened so quickly. But instead of seeing our son for the first time, getting to hold him or passing him to my wife for skin-to-skin cuddling, he was torn from my wife's body and handed to the pediatric team that was trying to save him. There was no doubt in my mind: this was bad, but I kept lying to my wife that everything would be okay. What was I supposed to tell her? How was it even possible that this happened? No one had ever mentioned that giving birth in a country like Canada wasn't always routine.

He was going to die. His brain damage was so severe he could hardly breathe and swallow. He was perfect in every way and we wanted to keep him with us so badly. All our preparations were useless. When even our attempts to prepare for the best-case scenario were inadequate, how would we get through the worst-case scenario? We needed help and we found it in the counsellors from Canuck Place Children's Hospice. They guided us and provided us with information about the available options during the two days we were allowed to spend with our son who we named Marlon. Without their help our grief experience would have been so different. We should have prepared for this scenario because the implications of not being prepared were so much more dramatic than those we had prepared for: having bought the wrong stroller, experiencing challenges with breastfeeding, or tiredness. All of those things paled in comparison to having to spend time with our dying child, time that we needed to make count because we were never going to get another chance at this with Marlon. Every missed opportunity was gone forever.

When he died, we had created as many memories as possible, taken pictures, kept his clothes, had created hand and foot moulds and many other things. Some of our friends were able to visit and meet him in the hospital. Still, there were so many things coming our way we were not prepared for: finding a funeral home and making arrangements, returning home to his nursery without our baby, returning the stroller. The list just did not end...

Now I think differently about preparation and I realize that most people still might read this story, feel sympathetic, but not think it could happen to them. I was like you. Why would it happen to our family? We had done everything right. But the reality is that it happens to many families; thousands who lose a baby early (miscarriage), more than 2,000 families in Canada whose babies are stillborn, and more than 1,500 children who die in their first year of life -- every year. Parents know about the risks during the early stages of pregnancies; they get told about the risk of SIDS and how to lower the risk of sudden infant death. What parents don't receive is much information about risks during delivery or even the dangers during second and third trimester. For example: based on Statistics Canada numbers a child is between 15-20 times more likely to die between weeks 20 to 42 of gestation compared to sudden infant death. One of the reasons for not mentioning this may be that there are few insights into some of the causes and hence few actions parents can take to prevent it.

While the majority of people haven't found the courage yet to talk with expectant parents about these risks, how to survive such tragedies and continue to live, we need to be even more diligent in ensuring that we have experienced specialists in place that are available every time parents are facing the tragedy of losing their baby -- when they are facing this trauma unaware and unprepared.

And we can maybe create a more supportive environment for parents by providing hospitals with additional equipment. Knowing how important the limited time with our own children was we are starting to raise funds to support hospitals with equipment that allows parents to extend this time and spend time together as a family. Sometimes that is all that parents have, for example if their baby dies in utero. We want to help them make those moments count -- if they choose to do so -- to form memories with their child. Cooling cots can be placed into the hospital room to keep the body of a child cool and delay natural processes. Baby can stay in the room with the parents to spend time together -- because every second counts.

You can read more about the cooling cots and this campaign at Please donate to give the gift of time.


Dying babies