What happens when a baby is stillborn in England and Wales?

<span>According to the Office for National Statistics, there were 2,433 stillbirths in 2022 in England and Wales.</span><span>Photograph: NataliaDeriabina/Getty Images</span>
According to the Office for National Statistics, there were 2,433 stillbirths in 2022 in England and Wales.Photograph: NataliaDeriabina/Getty Images

Thousands of bereaved relatives who suffered stillbirth in the 1980s and earlier have sought help in finding the final resting place of their babies.

It was only in the 1990s when attitudes towards dealing with a stillbirth changed.

Here we look at some key questions around how stillbirths are dealt with now compared with the past.

What is a stillbirth?

According to the NHS, a stillbirth is when a baby is born dead after 24 completed weeks of pregnancy. If the baby dies before 24 completed weeks, it’s known as a miscarriage or late foetal loss.

Some stillbirths are linked to complications with the placenta, a birth defect or with the mother’s health, according to the NHS. For others, no cause is found.

In 1992, the legal definition of stillbirth was changed from 28 weeks, which was set in 1953, to 24 weeks.

How common is stillbirth?

The most recent data from the Office for National Statistics show there were 2,433 stillbirths in 2022, a decrease of 164 or 6.3% – from 2,597 in 2021 in England and Wales.

The stillbirth rate in England and Wales in 2022 decreased to 4.0 stillbirths per 1,000 total births from 4.1 in 2021; this is higher than the rate seen before the coronavirus pandemic in 2019 when it was 3.9.

What happens if a stillbirth occurs?

Healthcare professionals are recommended to give parents the opportunity to spend time with their baby, prior to transferring the child to the mortuary. This is entirely discretionary but crucially they are to be given the choice.

If they so wish, parents can see and hold their baby, take photographs of the child or collect mementoes, such as a lock of hair, footprints or handprints, or the blanket the baby was wrapped in at birth.

Parents are also advised they are able to name the baby if they so wish.

If parents would like a hospital to help them with the funeral arrangements, this is governed by individual hospital policy. Staff must complete a certificate for burial or cremation and send to the relevant person or department in the NHS trust. If the family want to arrange their own funeral the certificate should be sent with the family, who should be advised to give it to their funeral director.

If a hospital cremation is chosen, parents must be asked what they wish to do with the ashes.

Has this always been the case?

No. Thousands of parents up until the 1990s had little involvement in what happened after a stillbirth occurred. In most cases, the baby was immediately taken from the labour ward – often before the parents even saw the child.

The hospital would frequently, sometimes on the day of birth, send the baby to the nearest cemetery for burial or incinerate the remains in the hospital. Occasionally, fathers were asked to transport the body of the baby to the cemetery. Parents were often told to move on and try again.

Many parents were told their baby was to be buried with an adult who happened to be buried on the same day. However, many parents have since discovered their babies were buried in mass and unmarked graves, often with dozens of other stillborn children.