real life

"These people are just desperate." The baby deaths that are "unexplained" in Australia.

Each week, 42 babies are delivered into a world they will never get to know. Each of these stillbirths leaves a family bereaved, questioning. But new research has found that, in the majority of case, these families will never receive answer.

According to a study released this week by the Mater Research Institute and University of Queensland, 60 per cent of stillbirths in Australia are recorded as “unexplained”, a finding that has sparked calls for the Government to create national guidelines for investigating such tragedies.

“If we can’t explain why a stillbirth has happened, it’s impossible to know what to target to prevent it in future,” review co-author Dr Hanna Reinebrant said.

“It’s important to establish a cause of death to help parents understand what went wrong and to guide clinical care for any future pregnancies. It would also help in developing prevention and education programs for women.”

For NSW midwife, Emma Porter, whose son Conor was stillborn in 2012, measures such as those can’t come soon enough.

“There’s just no answers for some people,” the 29-year-old said. “I know of families going back to have their second baby after losing their first to stillbirth, without knowing what happened. Sometimes it happens again, and it’s ‘unexplained’ again. These people are just desperate to have a family, but have to keep trying with this unknown hanging over their heads.”

Monique Bowley shares her story of pregnancy loss. (Post continues below.)

While her son’s death was explained (she had contracted Parvovirus, or ‘slapped cheek syndrome’ early in her pregnancy), she has seen the compounding effect that not knowing the cause of death has on her patient’s mental health.

“Statistics surrounding post natal depression and anxiety are already through the roof. And while we’re getting so better at identifying that, I think there’s a lot to be answered for given the angst that comes with unexplained stillbirth,” she said. “It can carry on to subsequent pregnancies, and even after a baby is born.”


Yet there are still no solid guidelines for healthcare professionals about how best to help couples deal with stillbirth, how to bring up topics such as autopsy and investigation.

“Some women don’t even get offered that, and that’s not good enough,” she said.

While Australia has the 15th lowest rate of stillbirth in the world – 2.7 for every 1000 births – that rate hasn’t dropped in over two decades, and that’s in spite of substantial medical and technological advances.

“We urgently need to address the reporting and categorising of stillbirths so we can better understand what causes stillbirths and improve outcomes for families,” Dr Reinebrant said.

Considering the scope and urgency of the issue, Porter is baffled as to why it gets so little attention, compared to other equally tragic yet less prevalent issues such as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (54 deaths annually, compared to more than 2300).

“I think the Government should be embarrassed. I think there’s a huge gap between what’s being done and what needs to be done,” she said.

But as Porter notes, creating investigation guidelines and improving education, is about more reducing a number. It’s about reducing heartache.

“There’s no worse feeling than leaving hospital without your baby – I still remember it like it was yesterday,” she said. “So if I [as a healthcare professional] could help prevent one other person from feeling that, I would.”