Trigger warning from BellyBelly: This article may be triggering for readers who have experienced infant loss. If you feel you may be triggered, please do not read the article. Sadly, birthworkers do see this happening to their clients from time to time, where doctors use the words ‘dead baby’ to try to convince women to have interventions to speed things up (where there are no signs of distress). It’s also been shown to happen in research. It’s absolutely distressing to lose a baby, and it’s absoutely not on to have a care provider tell you you might end up with a dead baby if you don’t have an induction without evidence of distress, either.
“If you don’t agree to an induction, you’re putting your baby at risk.”
“You need to have a c-section because your baby could get stuck and die.”
“It’s important to continually monitor your baby to make sure nothing goes wrong.”
No pregnant woman wants to hear these words from her care provider. No pregnant woman wants to put her baby at risk either.
Is Your Care Provider Playing The Dead Baby Card?
So if your care provider says something along the lines of “You must do this or your baby could die”, what should you do?
Is this genuine information about your options?
Or is your care provider playing the dreaded ‘dead baby card’?
What Is The Dead Baby Card?
It doesn’t have a very nice ring to it but, unfortunately it’s an appropriately coined phrase.
Ask around and you will probably hear from at least a few women who know exactly what the dead baby card means.
In essence, it is any statement a maternity care provider might use to take control of the decision-making for a woman’s pregnancy and birth.
The statement will generally include the words “your baby will (or could) die”, so as to persuade or frighten a woman into agreeing to a decision the care provider is advocating.
Most importantly, the statement will not have any evidence-based research to back up the care provider’s claim.
Is This For Real?
It’s not hard to find stories to corroborate the existence of the dead baby card. If you frequent online birth forums or social media groups, you’ll see many examples of women who have been handed some form of the dead baby card. They feel they were put in the most difficult position possible – and at one of the most vulnerable times in their lives.
Even so, the medical profession has debunked the dead baby card as a myth. Doctors point to healthy babies as evidence that they use whatever means are necessary to ensure a good outcome.
A Canadian study, however, has provided further insights, and solid evidence that the dead baby card does exist, and is used.
For the study, researchers ran a series of focus groups across several Canadian cities. Each group was comprised of a variety of care providers and first time pregnant women, and focused on how pregnant women and care providers in Canada manage birth in a highly medicalised and risk-averse culture of childbirth.
Care providers who were interviewed for the study commented on the use of phrases such as: “You don’t want your baby to die, do you?” These words imply that a baby is at risk (without substantial evidence) and the mother is acting in her own interests, rather than the interests of her unborn baby.
How Does This Affect Women?
Pregnancy and birth are times of great vulnerability for women. Fear can provide incredible motivation to achieve something, whether it is a superhuman feat of strength or a mental decision that goes against one’s ingrained beliefs and values.
When confronted with making a choice that involves saving her baby, a pregnant woman always puts her child first. If a trusted and experienced care provider suggests her baby is at risk unless she takes a certain action, the result is fear. Any opposition to this intervention is silenced, ensuring responsibility for decision-making is handed over to the care provider.
It is often assumed a woman who goes against the advice of her care provider is being difficult, or putting her own interests ahead of her child’s. Yet this couldn’t be further from the truth.
In the aftermath of a highly interventive birth, a woman might wonder how necessary and lifesaving the intervention really was. There are countless stories of women who experienced trauma and complications as a result of interventions they later came to deem as unnecessary.
Why Would Professionals Do This?
Your care providers are trained and experienced health professionals, who have looked after the wellbeing of many women and their babies. Why wouldn’t you believe they have your best interests at heart?
It’s difficult to believe care providers would tell women their babies were at risk unless they genuinely believed it. But when looked at in the context of the birth culture of today, it becomes a little easier to understand.
Today, in many countries, women have fewer choices for birth than ever before. The vast majority of women give birth in hospital settings, with staff who are trained to see birth as a medical event.
It’s hard to see normal birth in a medical-technical setting. In countries such as the United States, potential litigation places enormous pressure on obstetricians to circumvent any adverse outcomes. This leads to interventions that aren’t based on evidence-based practice.
How Do I Trust My Care Provider?
There are, of course, times when intervention is necessary, and even lifesaving, for mother and baby. Care providers want good outcomes too, and should be interested in supporting women to make informed decisions about their own and their babies’ wellbeing.
This not only empowers women to be the key decision-makers but also increases the positive collaboration between women and their care providers.
So how do you decide whether your care provider is playing the dead baby card, or genuinely wants to work with you for a good outcome?
Keep these questions in mind:
- Ask your care provider to explain why it is necessary, and to tell you risks and benefits of the suggested intervention. Simply answering with ‘Because I said so’, or ‘It’s hospital policy’ or similar, isn’t giving you information based on the best evidence available.
- Ask your care provider what alternatives there are to the suggested intervention, and what are the risks and benefits of each. Remember, the alternatives might include doing nothing.
- Ask for time to decide. It’s rare that you’ll be asked to make a decision in less than a few minutes. You can also gauge how necessary the suggested intervention is by how urgently you need to make the decision.
- Ask for another opinion. You can request to speak to a different care provider where you are, or seek the advice of others outside your birth setting.
It’s important to stay calm and seek an authentic communication with your care provider if the dead baby card has been played. In this way, you will be better able to understand the rationale behind the suggested intervention, and be certain whether or not it is necessary.
You can also ensure you have all the information you need to decide whether or not to interrupt the normal process of pregnancy and birth and go ahead with medical intervention.
If you have tried everything and still feel your care provider is using the dead baby card to influence your decision-making, it might be time to think about finding a new carer, if possible. If it isn’t possible, hire an experienced birth support doula, who can support you in making the best choices for you and your baby.