July 11, 2002 -- When Brenda Hecht went into labor with her third child 15 years ago, everything seemed normal. But soon after arriving at the hospital, she and her husband Richard learned that something had gone terribly wrong. Doctors found no heartbeat and hours later their daughter Amanda was born dead.
"We held her in our arms, and I am so glad we did," Hecht tells WebMD. "I can remember opening the blanket and seeing 10 perfect fingers, 10 perfect toes, and a beautiful head of dark hair. Even now in my mind I see that picture and think about what a pretty, perfect baby she was. If I hadn't seen her, my imagination might have come up with something that was much worse."
Like many parents grieving the loss of a newborn, the Hechts took comfort in seeing and holding their stillborn daughter. But research from the U.K. suggests that the practice may actually traumatize some parents and contribute to depression.
A study of 65 women who had given birth to stillborn children found that 39% of those who saw and held their babies experienced depression following the birth, compared with 21% who saw but did not hold their infants. Just 6% of mothers who did not see or hold their newborns experienced depression. Stillbirth was defined as loss during the second half of pregnancy.
The study, reported in the July 13 issue of the medical journal The Lancet, showed that mothers who had significant contact with their stillborn infants tended to have greater anxiety, more symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder, and more problems bonding with children born after the stillbirth.
Lead researcher and psychiatrist Patricia Hughes, MD, says the findings should not be interpreted as suggesting that contact is bad for all grieving parents. Instead, she says, they show that different parents have different needs with regard to mourning loss.
Hughes says the study was done to measure the effectiveness of a policy in the U.K. encouraging parents to see, hold, and dress their stillborn babies, as well as hold funerals and keep pictures and mementos.
"This is a very individual decision, and our findings suggest there is no justification for telling parents that not seeing their baby could interfere with the grieving process," she tells WebMD. "Healthcare staff need to be sensitive to what parents can cope with and not encourage them to do something they don't feel up to doing."
Child loss expert Deborah L. Davis, PhD, says in her experience most parents benefit from seeing and holding babies who are stillborn or die shortly after birth. But she agrees that grieving parents should not be told that such contact is the only "healthy" way to react to such a loss. Davis is the author of the book, Empty Cradle, Broken Heart: Surviving the Death of Your Baby.
"It is important for healthcare providers to remember that every parent in this situation is on their own journey, and that it is not for us to force them to take one path or another," she says. "Rather than being overzealous and telling parents that they will regret it for the rest of their life if they don't do this, they need to encourage parents to follow their intuition and their hearts."
A spokesperson for the pregnancy and infant loss support group SHARE expressed surprise at the U.K. findings. Susan Weitcamp says most parents find it healing to have memories of their stillborn babies.
"We've found that parents tend to regret it if they don't hold their child, but we don't push the issue," she says. "Some parents say they don't want contact, but then change their minds."
Brenda Hecht agrees there is no one-size-fits-all approach that is right for everyone. Hecht and her husband now work with SHARE to help other parents dealing with the loss of a newborn.
"You can't assume that someone in this situation will want what you want or be feeling what you were feeling," she says. "Everybody is different and every situation is different."