October is Pregnancy & Infant Loss Awareness Month. I will be the first to admit that I didn’t know much about Pregnancy & Infant Loss (PAIL) until it happened to me. I had heard statistics about miscarriages, and I knew that a number of my friends had and have gone through issues with infertility, but that was about the extent of my awareness. Honestly, there were a lot of days where I tried to ignore it. It’s uncomfortable to think about babies dying. It’s not the natural order of things. It’s not supposed to happen. And, as is natural, we really thought it wouldn’t happen to us. Until it did.
Statistically, stillbirth, defined in the United States as any pregnancy loss after 20 weeks gestation, occurs in 1 in 160 pregnancies, about 23,600 babies each year in the United States. That is more than 64 stillborn babies every single day just in the United States. It’s ten times more common than SIDS.
Our Alexander was stillborn. Alexander’s death was the result of an umbilical cord accident. He had not one, but two true knots in his umbilical cord, which tightened together, cutting off the flow of oxygen and nutrients that were keeping him alive. As a result, his heart stopped beating.
Umbilical cord accidents are the cause of about 10% of stillbirths, and when you consider that Alexander’s umbilical cord had not one, but two, true knots, the statistical probability of his death was less than a fraction of one percent.
So what? What does all this mean?
Well, let’s talk about it. Because statistics used to mean nothing to me. If anything, they made me feel a little bit safe. I mean, if only 1 in 160 pregnancies end in a stillbirth, we should have been safe after we got out of the “safe zone” and into the second trimester. News flash: there isn’t a safe zone.
In the past couple years, some topics of pregnancy loss has become less taboo. People are starting to talk about miscarriage. In fact, I had heard enough about miscarriage to know that it could happen to me. Because I knew about miscarriage, I knew what to look for, and I breathed a sigh of relief when we got into the second trimester, and even moreso when we entered the home stretch of the third trimester. But I didn’t know about counting kicks. I didn’t even know that stillbirth happened. But it does. And it did. It happened to me.
Stillbirth is different from miscarriage. And, while I certainly recognize that every loss matters no matter how early or late in pregnancy, here’s what is different about stillbirth. After we found out that Alexander no longer had a heartbeat, we went to the hospital and checked into labor and delivery where I would give birth to him. At 34 weeks, he was essentially fully developed. If he had been born before the knots in his umbilical cord tightened, he would have most likely lived. In fact, he was pretty big for how far along we were. After Alexander was born, we held him in our arms. We saw him. We felt the weight of his 5 lb 13 oz body. We named him. We took pictures. We have a death certificate, but no birth certificate. We saw his long fingers and his giant feet. We spent about six hours with him before saying goodbye and handing him back to the nurses.
So, this month, we’re talking about it. Because even if it’s a terrifying thought, I wish I had known that stillbirth was a possibility. We had been so prepared to know what to do to take care of our baby after he was born, but there was not a shred of information given us about what would happen if for some reason our baby was not born alive. They don’t tell you about that when they talk about birth plans. And while we have been very fortunate to be surrounded by an incredible network of support, there are so many people who are suffering and grieving in silence and who are walking through this alone.
We need to talk about pregnancy and infant loss at all stages. Miscarriage. Stillbirth. SIDS and other causes. Because it’s a reality that affects more people than you or I might think. Help break the silence and the stigma.