Sadly, sometimes despite our best efforts, attempts and hopes, things can still go wrong during pregnancy and childbirth.
The baby that was much longed for and already loved very deeply is taken from our world far too soon.
During this period not only is grief, sadness and anger common and expected, but it's also likely that the mother's body will go through its own emotional trials.
While our bodies are intelligent, intuitive and instinctive, if a baby is lost during labour often the body does not realise what has happened and continues to proceed with ‘work as usual'.
This can mean that the natural changes expected with the birth of a new baby will still occur, even though there is not a baby to take care of. One of these changes is lactation.
Lactation After Loss
Often, even after a baby is lost, a new mum can still experience milk production and supply.
As it's standard for milk to come in after three days (when you're likely no longer in the hospital) it can be confronting and emotional to approach this issue alone at home.
Empty Arms Bereavement Support advises that whatever reaction the mother has to this situation is natural and acceptable. Some mothers will find comfort in their body's ability to produce milk, while others will be upset and uncomfortable with lactation after loss.
What is most important is that mothers in this situation do not blame themselves for what has happened, or ‘lock-up' their emotions. Grieving and mourning is completely natural and needed during this process.
The decision of how to handle lactation is then completely in the hands of the mother.
There are a few options of what you can do with your milk supply. You can:
- Take medication to stop the milk
- Take herbs/homeopathics/teas/other natural methods to stop the milk
- Let your body do what it needs to do naturally and express just to comfort, until it stops
- Donate your milk to a breastmilk bank
Alison has cared for many women who have lost babies and says, “Reaction to lactation is varied but many [women], when given time and space to decide (rather than the robotic pro-forma response in hospitals where they are told about Dostinex, but not about their other alternatives) opt to lactate and wait for the milk naturally to go away.”
Controlling Milk Production
Once lactation has occurred, the mother may choose to allow the milk to slow naturally or to manually suppress it.
In both instances, she will need to manage the day-to-day reality (and sometimes discomfort) of having milk available. Empty Arms suggests expressing (via hand or breast pump) enough milk to relieve the discomfort, but not so much that you have emptied your supply. You do not want your body thinking that it needs to produce more milk.
By regularly expressing small amounts of milk, it will also prevent infections and blocked milk ducts – which can become mastitis if untreated. If the mother experiences any pain or tenderness in the breasts, or feels ill, aching or feverish, the Children's Hospital Minnesota advises calling a local doctor or midwife to help.
To ease the initial discomfort, Empty Arms suggests some of the following tactics:
- Taking a warm bath or shower and ensuring that the water runs over your breasts
- Wearing a supportive and comfortable bra that is not too restrictive
- Using ice packs if there is swelling and pain (apply for between 5 and 15 minutes)
- Drinking sage tea (said to decrease milk production)
- Placing washed, raw and cold cabbage leaves inside the bra to reduce milk production
Donating Your Milk To A Breastmilk Bank
One option to deal with this situation is to donate the milk to others. Often, organisations use donated breast milk for babies who are ill or premature, or mothers who are experiencing difficulties breastfeeding.
Milk banks work by collecting expressed milk that is frozen. It is then pasteurised, treated and checked and passed on to the baby. As long as the mother doesn't smoke, take illegal drugs, has had a blood transfusion or has tested positive for hepatitis B or C, HIV, syphilis or HTLV the milk should be accepted.
There are Milk Bank Associations in most countries and cities that accept milk donations.
Here are a few to try in Australia:
Of course this option is not for everyone and totally understandable if you do not wish to donate milk. Please do not feel guilty. Some mothers will want to do something with their milk, and others wont feel comfortable – and either is perfectly okay.
Women’s Stories of Lactation After Loss
Making a decision on what to do may feel overwhelming when you’re feeling so lost in grief, so here are a few different women’s stories about what they chose and why. As you will see, reactions, thoughts and feelings are all so very unique – and normal.
Idell – No Medication
“Ruby Rose came into this world at only 21 weeks. She stayed just long enough for us to hold her, kiss her and say goodbye. Those few moments seems to last for ever as I drank in every second of her life and savoured it, but even as the enormity of my loss was dawning on me I could fell my body dancing to a completely different rhythm, a dance of joy and triumph at giving birth. The dance of endorphins being released and I chose not to fight it. I allowed myself to embrace the elation that comes in those moments after birth and for my body feel every wonderful sensation. After all I had given birth and nothing could change that.
A few days after I came home without my baby I was visited by a midwife who asked me if I had begun lactating and I told her that I had. Her response was to offer me pills to stop the flow of milk and I asked her why I would want to do that. Her reasoning both distressed and angered me. She told me it might help me deal with the loss if I suppressed the flow of milk. I declined. My body had given birth but did not understand that the baby was dead and I felt by taking pills to suppress my milk was denying it the chance to heal naturally and deny what I had been through.
I chose instead to acknowledge and honour the life I created and carried and to respect that my body had a process to go through. I found great comfort in doing so and really felt at peace with the loss of my child. In allowing my body to prepare to nurture a life even though that life no longer existed I was still a mother.
Losing a child at any time is devastating but during pregnancy or at birth is even harder however, if you can take the time to honour that birth and listen to your body you can really heal and be at peace.
I had a caesarean with 1st child and have lost every other child since, so had I not listened and embraced my bodies responses I would never have known those wonderful moments and feelings.”
Sammie – Medication
“My milk came in 4 days after I lost my precious sweet little boy. I was warned it could happen but I was such a shattered mess I did not remember Sudafed dried it up pretty fast. Sigh.”
Evelyn – Medication
“I had to take two doses after I had my little angel to dry up the milk, I didn’t want to have my supply reminding me of what I couldn’t bring home!”
“I wish I had had the option of donating to a milk bank back in 1989 – I think it would have helped a lot to know that some baby out there was getting what my baby no longer could.”
Resources To Help
BellyBelly has a very supportive forum, Miscarriage, Stillbirth and Loss of a Child if you’d like some support from those who have been through the same. But it also is important to get some trained, experienced help too.
If you or somebody you know has experienced a loss, please ensure that you contact the following organisations and institutions:
- Pregnancy Loss Australia (Formerly Teddy Love Club) – offers a bereavement support line
- Bears of Hope Pregnancy & Infant Loss Support
- SIDS and KIDS (for all forms of loss)
- Grieve Out Loud
- Sands Australia
- Bereavement Care Centre
- Open Doors Counseling and Education Services
- Pillars of Strength
- Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Research and Information
- National Association for Loss and Grief
- Mums Like me
- Pregnancy, Birth & Baby Helpline: 1800 88 24 36 (24 hours, 7 days a week)
Most hospitals also offer counseling and support services, so make sure you speak to your doctor or midwife about support available.
Dealing with the loss of a baby is an emotional, traumatic and upsetting time for both the mother and the family. Finding effective support networks during this time will help to ease the pain and encourage progression through the various stages of the mourning process.