Dealing with a stillbirth or neonatal death is a difficult and saddening experience. At the same time, your body may undergo common changes that women experience after birth, such as sore breasts, breast milk production and bleeding. Some of these changes may be a painful reminder of your loss, so it is important to know that support is available to you.
Breast soreness and milk production
From week 16 of your pregnancy your breasts will have been getting ready to produce milk so they may be large and feel hard and sore. Between 1 to 4 days after the birth, some women's breasts are engorged and leak milk. Engorgement means there is more milk being produced than is being discharged. This can be uncomfortable, painful and for many women, very distressing.
Others may prefer to let their milk production cease. By ensuring that you only express a small amount of milk if you feel uncomfortable, your milk supply will gradually decrease until it stops. This can take a few days or weeks depending on how advanced your pregnancy was, how much milk you're expressing or if you become pregnant again.
In the meantime, you can help feel more comfortable by:
- supporting your breasts with a firm bra and handling them very gently
- using breast pads inside your bra and changing these when they become wet
- putting cold or gel packs on your breasts
- putting cold, clean cabbage leaves inside your bra, changing them every 2 hours
- lying on your side or back and supporting your breasts with pillows
- asking your doctor about using a mild pain reliever
- expressing a small amount of milk (it's best not to express very much or this will stimulate more milk production)
Reducing the amount of fluids you drink won't reduce milk production, so it's best to just drink whenever you're thirsty.
If one breast becomes painful, warm, has a red patch on it or you feel 'flu-like' symptoms such as a fever, aches or chills, you could have mastitis so you should see your doctor immediately.
It's normal for you to bleed for 5-10 days after the birth. However, if you have heavy bleeding that doesn't stop, abdominal (lower tummy) cramps or fever, see your doctor.
Return of your period and contraception
When your breastmilk production is decreasing or stopped, your period may return more quickly. Therefore it's best to consider contraception early before you plan to have intercourse again. Your doctor or midwife will be able to advise you about this.
Some parents want to try for a baby again soon after a stillbirth or neonatal death. However, it may be helpful to give yourself time for your body and emotions to recover first. Some women who get pregnant before processing their grief can find it more difficult to cope emotionally with another pregnancy or bonding with a new baby while still dealing with their earlier loss.
It could also be helpful to have medical or genetic tests before becoming pregnant again, to see if you or your partner has any underlying medical condition that could cause another complicated pregnancy. Your GP will be able to refer you to the most appropriate service. Depending on the results of those tests, you or your partner might be recommended treatment or a procedure before trying to get pregnant again.
Where to find help
Your doctor, midwife, maternal child health nurse or social worker will be able to guide you through the process after the birth, including having a check-up 6 weeks afterwards. They will also be able to advise you about who can help you if your grief becomes overwhelming.
Sands Australia provides information and support for parents who have 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 also call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby on 1800 882 436 to speak to a maternal child health nurse.
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Last reviewed: April 2019