Need to talk? Call 1800 882 436.
It's a free call with a maternal child health nurse. *call charges may apply from your mobile

Is it an emergency? Dial 000
If you need urgent medical help, call triple zero immediately.

beginning of content

What is a neonatal death?

4-minute read

A neonatal death is when a baby dies within the first 4 weeks after they are born. Dealing with a neonatal death can be very difficult for the whole family, but there is help and support available.

What is a neonatal death?

A neonatal death (also called a newborn death) is when a baby dies during the first 28 days of life. Most neonatal deaths happen in the first week after birth.

Neonatal death is different from stillbirth. A stillbirth is when the baby dies at any time between 20 weeks of pregnancy and the due date of birth.

More than 3 million neonatal deaths happen worldwide every year – about 2 in every 5 deaths of children under 5 occur in the first 28 days after birth.

Neonatal death is rare in Australia, and rates are falling – there are now about 1,600 neonatal deaths per year.

What are the causes of a neonatal death?

It’s not always known why a baby dies. However, the risk of neonatal death may be greater if a baby is born prematurely, is low birthweight, or has birth defects.

Prematurity and low birthweight cause about 1 in 4 neonatal deaths. Premature babies can develop life-threatening complications such as breathing problems, bleeding on the brain, infections and problems in their intestines (necrotising enterocolitis).

Low birthweight – if the baby weighs less than 2.5kg at birth – can also cause serious health problems such as difficulty breathing and feeding.

The most common birth defects that cause neonatal death include heart defects, lung defects, genetic conditions and brain conditions such as neural tube defect or anencephaly.

Sometimes a neonatal death may be caused by problems during the pregnancy, such as pre-eclampsia; problems with the placenta; infections; or lack of oxygen during the birth. It can also be caused by complications during the labour - for example, if the baby didn’t get enough oxygen.

What happens after a neonatal death?

If your baby dies, you might want to spend some time with them. You should take as long as you like. Some parents create memories of the baby by taking photos, handprints or footprints.

When you are ready to say goodbye, the hospital or a funeral director will take your baby to a funeral home. There will then be a burial or cremation.

By law, you must register both the birth and the death with Births, Deaths and Marriages in your state or territory.

In Australia, not all neonatal deaths are investigated by conducting an autopsy. An autopsy is an examination to try to work out why the baby has died. It is done by a trained pathologist. You can decide how detailed you would like the autopsy to be – whether it involves just examining the baby or removing organs to test why the death has happened.

An autopsy cannot be done without the parents’ consent and it is up to you whether to agree to an autopsy after a neonatal death. The only time when an autopsy may be carried out without consent is if the case is referred to a coroner. This might happen if the death occurred in suspicious circumstances or if it was something to do with the healthcare the baby received.

Sometimes no cause of death can be found, even after an autopsy. It’s a good idea to discuss the benefits and downsides of an autopsy with a doctor, midwife or social worker. They will guide you through what needs to be done and will answer any questions you might have.

Learn more here about what happens after a neonatal death and what changes might occur to your body.

Where to find help

The death of a newborn baby can be devastating, both for the parents and for the whole family. So it’s important to get as much support as possible to help you through this difficult time.

Your doctor, midwife, maternal child health nurse or social worker will be able to guide you through what happens after the baby has died.

Sands Australia provides information and support for anyone who has experienced stillbirth or newborn 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 having 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.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: April 2019


Back To Top

Need more information?

Stillbirth and neonatal death | Raising Children Network

Information about pregnancy loss, stillbirth and neonatal death, including grief and getting support.

Read more on raisingchildren.net.au website

Grief after stillbirth or neonatal death | Raising Children Network

When a baby dies because of stillbirth or neonatal death, there’s no right way for you to grieve. People deal with grief in their own ways.

Read more on raisingchildren.net.au website

Medical Termination | SANDS - MISCARRIAGE STILLBIRTH NEWBORN DEATH SUPPORT

How to cope with medical termination

Read more on Sands Australia website

Stillbirth and newborn death | SANDS - MISCARRIAGE STILLBIRTH NEWBORN DEATH SUPPORT

Support after the death of a baby through stillbirth or newborn death

Read more on Sands Australia website

Dealing with a neonatal death

Dealing with the death of a newborn baby is one of the hardest things a person can ever do. Get important information here about where to go for help and support.

Read more on Pregnancy, Birth & Baby website

Your body after stillbirth or neonatal death

After a stillbirth or neonatal death, your body may still experience the same changes it would after an uncomplicated birth. Find out what to expect and where to go for support.

Read more on Pregnancy, Birth & Baby website

Pregnancy - Pregnancy Topics - Stillbirth and neonatal death

It is very uncommon for a baby to die in late pregnancy these days because women are healthier and good antenatal care is available

Read more on Women's and Children's Health Network website

Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)

Sudden Unexpected Death in Infancy (SUDI) is a term used to describe the sudden and unexpected death of a baby.

Read more on healthdirect website

Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) - myDr.com.au

Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), or cot death, is when an apparently healthy baby dies for no obvious reason.

Read more on myDr website

Death of a baby - Better Health Channel

Miscarriage, stillbirth or neonatal death is a shattering event for those expecting a baby, and for their families. Grief, relationship stresses and anxiety about subsequent pregnancies are common in these circumstances. Counselling can help both the mother and father after a baby dies.

Read more on Better Health Channel website

Call us and speak to a Maternal Child Health Nurse for personal advice and guidance.

Need further advice or guidance from our maternal child health nurses?

This information is for your general information and use only and is not intended to be used as medical advice and should not be used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any medical condition, nor should it be used for therapeutic purposes.

The information is not a substitute for independent professional advice and should not be used as an alternative to professional health care. If you have a particular medical problem, please consult a healthcare professional.

Except as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968, this publication or any part of it may not be reproduced, altered, adapted, stored and/or distributed in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of Healthdirect Australia.