In East Kent, on average there will be a stillbirth or neonatal death every five days, that is 70 families every year devastated by the death of a baby, affecting whole families and whole communities. We are there for everyone, no matter how recent, or how long ago says a member of the East Kent Sands Charity
East Kent Sands is a local chairty who offer bereavement support groups and ‘befrienders’, who have had a similar experience and make themselves available to those who’ve just suffered the loss of a baby, for crucial communication and reassurance, either by phone or in person.
Theresa is one of around 15 women per day who lose their baby before, during or soon after childbirth. Nearly all of the volunteers who run East Kent Sands have experienced the death of a baby – and know how important support is for women like Theresa and the families facing such tragic circumstances. The East Kent Sands charity is a relatively new charity having been started in 2016 and yet in its time it has done some fantastic work, supporting families who have lost a child to stillbirth.
For parents affected by stillbirth, the experience of losing a baby is a grief like no other. Claire (not her real name) told us: “Losing my baby has simply changed my life…Both my husband and I have suffered with our mental health, it’s impacted our relationship, relationships with other people,” Claire explains. “Our grief will be lifelong, we are essentially grieving for a life that never came to be, grieving for the things that we will never get to experience – no first words, no first steps, no first day at school to name but a few. Christmases, birthdays, even family holidays become emotional as our family can never be complete.”
Such a devastating experience can leave families feeling isolated. There is still stigma associated with the loss of a baby, and many people find it hard to talk about for fear of saying the wrong thing. Yet an estimated 4.2 million women are living with depression associated with a previous stillbirth (page2), which is why it’s so important for those affected to feel able to talk about it.
“It’s essential to have access to support of this kind as you’re in such a vulnerable state, it’s upsetting to put it midly and you’re so emotionally raw that having someone to talk to who simply just understands just gives you a release. It was a lifeline for us,” Claire remembers.
Officially, a stillbirth is when a baby is born after at least 24 weeks of pregnancy, having never breathed or shown signs of life. Before that, the death is officially classed as a miscarriage (although of course, families may experience similar feelings of grief for a death at any stage of pregnancy).
There are many possible causes for a baby to be stillborn, although there is still a high proportion of unexplained stillbirths. Causes include infections in the mother, such as rubella or Lyme’s disease, that also affect the baby; bleeding before or during labour; diabetes; and fetal growth restriction (FGR), where a baby slows or stops growing inside the womb.
Every baby matters, and their loss sends ripples affecting not just parents and wider families, but also, for instance healthcare professionals who help these families, local communities too.
There are also known risk factors that increase the chance of a pregnancy ending in stillbirth. These include maternal obesity (which increases the risk to 1 in 100), smoking, drinking alcohol, drug misuse, and being over 35. But there are still unanswered questions around their loss for many families.
The latest figures show there were 3112 stillbirths recorded in the UK in 2016, and 696,271 live births. This means one out of every 225 births ended in stillbirth, or a rate of 4.4 per 1000. This is a slight improvement on previous years and the lowest rate since 1992. But it is still far too high and Sands charity, nationally, hopes to reduce this figure further through funding research and in raising awareness of some of the risk factors.
But despite the improvement, the UK still has much to do to: of high income countries, the UK is 24th out of 49, in terms of stillbirth rates, behind countries including Slovenia, Croatia and the Czech Republic. The country with the lowest rate of stillbirth was Iceland, which has a rate of just 1.3 per 1000.
Globally, 98% of stillbirths take place in poor and middle income countries, so we know that different levels of wealth, resources and access to good healthcare are contributing to these outcomes.
Among the richer countries, the large variation between stillbirth rates raises questions: with rates varying from 1.3 to 8.8 per 1000 across high-income countries, reductions to the UK’s relatively high rate should be possible. Nationally Sands aims, by 2020, to reduce the number of babies dying by at least 20%, and to fund research to better understand what causes these deaths.
Medical journal the Lancet has reported that substandard care contributes to 20-30% of all stillbirths. The report also found that women living under ‘adverse socioeconomic circumstances’ have twice the risk of having a stillborn child than more advantaged pregnant women. It suggests programmes should be available locally and nationally to address the inequalities.
Current figures show that within England, stillbirth rates rise along with deprivation levels, from a rate of 3.9 per 1000 births for the least deprived families up to 5.5 for the most deprived. It follows that in reducing deprivation levels, pregnancy outcome rates could also be improved.
There are also inequalities in the care available following the loss of a baby. A spokesperson from Sands, national charity explains, “One of our key aims at Sands is to ensure that all areas of the country receive the same level of care.” Claire realises she and her family were very fortunate with the level of care we received here in East Kent, however other areas of the country don’t have bereavement suites in hospitals, for example…It’s vital that parents receive the appropriate care and it shouldn’t be a postcode lottery as to whether you receive it.”
East Kent has one specialist bereavement suite, partly funded by East Kent Sands, at the Quen Elizabeth the Queen Mother Hospital (QEQM) in Margate. However, we understand another is due to open shortly at the William Harvey Hospital, in Ashford. Here East Kent families can and will be able to to spend precious time with their babies following death, a very important step in the grieving process.
Another mother we have spoken to, Deborah (not her real name), lost her second child, M, to an undiagnosed heart condition at one day old. “Our loss is always there. Even though we were lucky enough to go on and have another little boy, he does not replace M. I will always be a Mum to three, it’s just one of my children I did not get to keep.”
Deborah’s family managed to find some positives in their experience, “M has not changed our lives for the worse. He has made us as a family more compassionate and understanding. Because of him I have challenged myself more, for example I’ve done a skydive in his memory, taken up running. I have met some amazing people because of him.”
East Kent Sands attends around 50 fetes and fairs, community days and networking opportunities, every year, raising awareness of baby deaths and the support available to anyone affected by the death of a baby, no matter when or how long ago – it is so important that we encourage people to talk about this sometimes taboo subject.
The money raised goes towards improving the stillbirth units at the WHH or QEQM or the Ashford Baby Memorial Garden in Ashford town centre. “This has been designed to be open to anyone and we welcome families with their children, or people just wanting to eat their sandwich. The garden has a special area where we have over 210 name stones, remembering some of our babies. These are available at a one-off cost of just £40. Our beautiful garden is open to all and is situation within the main Memorial Park.“
In Folkestone there is Devlin’s Memorial Garden set up by Natalie King and other volunteers, after the loss of her baby suddenly in 2011. She says she didn’t get the support she needed at the time to help with her grief. Thankfully, East Kent Sands has in part, stepped in to fill that void.
Another way people can help in supporting families undergoing this painful experience is by breaking through the barrier to talking about it. “It is better to say something to a bereaved parent than nothing, even if it’s just a simple ‘I’m sorry’. This acknowledgement of their baby is so important,” says Claire. “Every baby matters, and their loss sends ripples affecting not just parents, but also, for instance healthcare professionals who help these families, local communities too…”
If you would like to make a donation you can:
• send a cheque to East Kent Sands at 13 Goldings Court, Ashford, Kent TN24 9JR
• make a payment online – East Kent Sands. Sort code 60-83-01 Account number 20371230.
If you have been affected by this article and need to speak to anyone about a similar experience you may have gone through you, you can contact East Kent Sands on 01233 643976
The Shepwayvox Team: Journalism for the People NOT the Powerful.