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What is a neonatal death?

5-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.

Globally around 2.4 million children die in the first 28 days after birth. This is around half of all child deaths under the age of 5.

Neonatal death is rare in Australia, and rates are falling — there are about 700 neonatal deaths a year in Australia.

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, or infections. 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 and 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, also known as a post mortem examination. An autopsy is an examination to try to work out why the baby has died.

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 health care the baby received.

An autopsy is done by a trained pathologist. If you agree to an autopsy, you can decide how detailed you would like it to be — whether it involves just examining the baby or removing organs to test why the death has happened.

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.

Griefline provides telephone support — call 1300 845 745, Mon to Fri, 8am to 8pm (AEST).

Speak to a maternal child health nurse

Call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby to speak to a maternal child health nurse on 1800 882 436 or video call. Available 7am to midnight (AET), 7 days a week.

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

Last reviewed: April 2021

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