National action needed to reduce the pain and silence of stillbirth

The Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care reports:

  • Six stillbirths a day.

The care Australians receive throughout their pregnancy journey is set to improve with the release recently of the first national standard on stillbirth.

Each year, more than 2,000 Australian families experience the tragic and painful loss of a baby to stillbirth. That’s six stillbirths a day.

In the past two decades, statistics have remained steady with, on average, six babies stillborn every day.

The Stillbirth Clinical Care Standard, developed by the Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care, is being launched at the 2022 Annual National Stillbirth Forum in Brisbane.

The new standard has guidance on better care for women before and during pregnancy, encourages open discussions about investigations after a stillbirth and urges wide-ranging support after perinatal loss.Aiming to reduce the stillbirth rate and the stigma attached to the experience, the standard provides a pathway to closing the equity gaps from cultural and geographic barriers.

The standard responds to an action in the Australian Government’s National Stillbirth Action and Implementation Plan and is aligned with the Safer Baby Bundle program, which both aim to reduce rates of late-gestation stillbirth (after 28 weeks).

Clinical lead for the standard, Associate Professor Liz Marles, Clinical Director at the Commission and a general practitioner, said Australia was on a “positive trajectory” to address this public health issue, which is reinforced by the endorsement of 26 peak bodies and healthcare organisations.

“Stillbirth is the most common form of perinatal death in Australia, accounting for 7 in every 1,000 births.

Yet for many families, the experience of stillbirth remains hidden because of stigma and a culture of silence,” she said.

“For the first time, this standard embeds stillbirth guidance into our maternity care that extends across the pregnancy journey. This begins when a family is planning for a baby, continues through pregnancy and sadly, in instances where a baby dies before birth, can involve a search for reasons for the death.”

For many parents, A/Professor Marles said understanding what may have led to the loss can be a helpful part of living with the death of their baby and may help with planning future pregnancies.

“Stillbirth is a profoundly devastating experience. Families can struggle to navigate those first few hours and days after stillbirth. The standard highlights the importance of clinicians speaking openly with families about their experience and options for tests to understand why it may have happened,” she said.

A hidden tragedy: six stillbirths a day

According to Professor David Ellwood, Professor of Obstetrics & Gynaecology at Griffith University, and Co-Director of the Centre of Research Excellence in Stillbirth (Stillbirth CRE), the standard is vitally important because it clearly defines expected care for women in pregnancy and after stillbirth.

“We can do more in Australia to reduce our stillbirth rate, particularly for late-gestation stillbirths, which is almost 50% higher than in countries with the lowest rates worldwide, including the Netherlands, Finland and Denmark.  In recent years, several countries have had success in reducing stillbirth rates, and Australia can learn from these initiatives to inform our approach to stillbirth prevention.

“There are immense benefits to expanding our understanding of the causes of stillbirth – through appropriate clinical conversations, relevant assessments during pregnancy, and clinical investigations after stillbirth, such as autopsy,” said Professor Ellwood.

“While not all stillbirths can be prevented, research shows that in 20 to 30 per cent of cases, the death may have been avoided had high-quality care been provided. This highlights the value of investigating why stillbirths are happening, then examining the evidence to improve our health response.”

Professor Caroline Homer AO, Co-Program Director of Maternal, Child and Adolescent Health at the Burnet Institute and President of the Perinatal Society of Australia and New Zealand, is also an advocate of the new standard.

“The Stillbirth Clinical Care Standard is critical because for the first time, it provides the benchmark to ensure that Australian women and families get the best care – both to reduce preventable stillbirth and to provide the very best bereavement care,” she explained.

“We all want to reduce the number of families who face the unimaginable grief of losing a baby. It’s time for us to talk more openly with women about how to reduce the risk of stillbirth, such as using safe sleeping positions after 28 weeks of pregnancy and supporting women to stop smoking.”

“The standard also addresses the importance of supporting parents with practical arrangements related to the death of their baby and ensuring access to follow-up care and support after they leave hospital.”

The Stillbirth Clinical Care Standard (Report) and resources are at: