After the joy and anticipation of a birth, a neonatal (newborn) death can bring shock and heartbreak. Dealing with the death of a newborn baby can be one of the hardest things you will ever do. But with support from those around you, you will get through this.
After the death
A neonatal death is when a baby dies within the first 28 days after birth. Parents who experience a neonatal death often feel shocked and devastated. They may feel alone, or find it hard to believe their baby has died. But everyone reacts differently, and you may experience many different emotions at different times.
You will probably have a lot to think about, like making funeral arrangements and registering the baby’s birth and death. The hospital social worker or a maternal child health nurse can support you and guide you through the process.
Some parents may be eligible for government support after a neonatal death. Government payments include Parental Leave Pay or Newborn Upfront Payment and Newborn Supplement paid with Family Tax Benefit Part A; Dad and Partner Pay; and Family Tax Benefit Bereavement Payment. Visit the Department of Human Services website for more information.
Coming to terms with what has happened
Parents often find it helpful to know why their baby died. Some may request an autopsy, which is an examination to work out the causes of the neonatal death. Sometimes, however, the cause is never known.
Talking to the health professionals who looked after you and your baby can help. If you’re not satisfied with their answers, you have the right to ask to speak to someone else. Even if you never know why your baby died, talking about it and getting all the facts is an important step towards acknowledging what has happened.
Many parents wish to spend some time with their baby. You can ask to take the baby home with you, or visit them in the funeral home. This time is precious, so take as long as you like. Then, when you are ready, you can say goodbye.
Years ago, medical staff used to remove a baby as soon as they had died. But these days we know it helps with healing if parents can take the time to create memories of their baby to treasure later.
If your baby didn’t already have a name, you can choose a name for them now. It will help you acknowledge they were a real person when you are remembering them and talking about them with other people in the future.
Other ways you can remember your baby include taking lots of photos, holding and cuddling them, taking a lock of their hair, making handprints or footprints, keeping the cards or drying flowers you receive, or writing a journal.
You can also make a memorial for your baby - for example by finding a special place in the garden, planting a tree or choosing a song to remember them by. Do whatever feels right for you.
Looking after yourself
Mothers may produce milk for several weeks after a neonatal death. Expressing a little milk will make you more comfortable, but don’t express too much since your breasts will produce more. A midwife, neonatal nurse or lactation consultant can help you. See your doctor if your breasts become painful, swollen and warm, or if you develop a fever.
Your body will also go through some of the same changes that women experience after birth. Learn more here about what can happen to your body after a neonatal death.
It may feel like no-one else could understand your grief, but involving others in the grieving process is important. Many bereaved parents find it helpful to invite family members to see the baby. If you have other children, it’s important to involve them too.
Your family and friends will want to support you, but they may not know what to do or understand how deeply you are grieving. It can take a long time to deal with a neonatal death, so even if you can’t face seeing people straight away, you can accept their love and support later.
Meeting with other parents who have experienced neonatal death can help. You can find support in person at a local support group or online in the form of blogs or Facebook groups.
Both mothers and fathers can be overwhelmed with grief when dealing with a neonatal death. Your relationship may be strained as you both deal with feelings in different ways. It’s important to communicate openly and honestly and support each other to get through.
Where to find help
Sands Australia provides information and support for anyone who has experienced stillbirth or neonatal death. You can speak to someone 24 hours a day on their helpline, 1300 072 637.
Red Nose Grief and Loss has information and resources. You can call their helpline 24 hours a day on 1300 308 307.
Lifeline supports anyone who is experiencing a personal crisis – call 13 11 14 or chat online.
You can call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby on 1800 882 436 to talk to a maternal child health nurse.
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Last reviewed: April 2019