Baby Loss Awareness Week

Part of Business of the House (Prorogation) – in the House of Commons at 6:28 pm on 8th October 2019.

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Photo of Paula Sherriff Paula Sherriff Shadow Minister (Mental Health and Social Care), Shadow Minister (Mental Health) 6:28 pm, 8th October 2019

Today’s debate has been incredibly moving and I am humbled to respond on behalf of the Opposition. It of course coincides with Baby Loss Awareness Week, which is an important opportunity for us all to unite with bereaved parents, and their families and friends, to commemorate the lives of babies who died during, before or shortly after birth.

I congratulate every Member who has had the courage to speak today about something as personal and devastating as baby loss. Drawing from our own personal experiences will undoubtedly help and bring comfort to the thousands of others who have been affected by this important subject. As you said earlier, Madam Deputy Speaker, today’s debate has once again shown Parliament at its best. I wish to reflect on some of the moving contributions we have heard.

Let me start by thank the hon. Members for Colchester (Will Quince) and for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach). The hon. Member for Colchester could not speak in this debate as he is now a Minister, but his bravery in bringing this issue to the House was remarkable. Collectively, we thank both Members for their incredibly hard work and great courage. On behalf of the official Opposition, I thank you both from the bottom of my heart.

Victoria Prentis spoke very knowledgably about the work being done by the Department for International Development in developing countries, which was very heartening. My hon. Friend Justin Madders spoke very powerfully about how important it is that we support bereaved parents—I will go on to talk a bit more about that in a moment.

Andrew Percy talked about bereavement suites in hospitals. That is an incredibly important issue and, indeed, it is something that I will take back and discuss with my own trust. My hon. Friend Sarah Champion discussed both counselling and family support. Mr Hunt spoke very knowledgably about the impact on health professionals and how it must simply be one of the worst things that they ever have to deal with.

Patricia Gibson spoke so powerfully about her own experience and, once again, showed great bravery. She also discussed how important it is that we are all aware of, and that we empower others to learn about, pre-eclampsia. We also heard from Jamie Stone and from Jim Shannon who gave us a very, very moving speech. I thank him very much once again for his incredible bravery.

All the charities that come together to collaborate on this commemorative event do amazing work supporting bereaved families. There are now more than 60 charities involved, and they have a huge impact on raising awareness nationally, and each organisation should be incredibly proud of everything they do and everything they have achieved in driving this agenda forward.

As well as using today’s debate to raise awareness, this is an opportunity to reassess the progress that is being made and to highlight the fact that, although excellent care is available in the country, it is not available to everyone everywhere. Every year, thousands of people experience the loss of a baby in pregnancy, at or soon after birth, and in infancy.

Unfortunately, it is not a rare event, and, as too many of us here know, it can happen to anyone. The Miscarriage Association has invited women to share their experiences, and the bravery of these women in sharing their stories is commendable. Angela has spoken about how her mental health deteriorated after her second and third miscarriages. She said:

“My mental health deteriorated after those two losses. I needed medication to get through my periods when they returned. I couldn’t go to the GP or the hospital without having a panic attack. I had horrible flashbacks of the miscarriages themselves. And although these subsided over time, I can still have a panic attack at the GPs without warning. It also started to affect me at work and in my personal life, because my self-esteem and self-confidence plummeted and I lost the ability to believe that I could do anything right. It was almost like when I lost the babies, I also lost some of myself.”

She has also spoken of the difficulty in talking about miscarriage and mental health, but the importance of doing so. She went on:

“I have also confided in a few close friends and that helps too. I still struggle asking for help, it is not something that comes easily to me, but I when I do, I am always grateful that I tried. It’s hard to break the silence around miscarriage and even harder to break it around mental health and miscarriage combined but I think we should try. Even if it just helps one person feel a little less alone.”

Unfortunately, there remains a tremendous taboo around baby loss, and many women report that their family and friends do not want to talk about their loss, and that can lead to an isolation and a disconnection from others, which means that parents can end up trapped by their own grief.

There is work to be done to break down the unacceptable stigma and, too often, feelings of shame that can surround baby loss. Whatever the circumstances around the loss of a baby, every single woman deserves respectful and dignified care that acknowledges her loss, supports her mental health and empowers her to make future decisions about having a child.

The care that bereaved families receive from health and other professionals following pregnancy loss or the death of their baby can have long-lasting effects. Good care cannot remove parents’ pain and grief, but it can help them through such a devastating time. In contrast, poor care can significantly add to their distress. Unfortunately, the standard of care in the UK varies between regions and even within settings, depending on the stage at which a loss occurs—from early pregnancy through to infancy. Although there is excellent care available in this country, it is not available to everyone. In England alone, there is still a 25% variation in stillbirths and, as a result, many parents do not receive the good quality bereavement support that they so desperately need after pregnancy or baby loss, and we have heard this afternoon what a difference that that can make.

We need to ensure that there is learning from every single miscarriage and stillbirth. Although we can rightly say that we are beginning to improve the approach to those dealing with the consequences of baby loss, it seems like we still have a way to go in understanding and really tackling its causes. According to The Lancet, the annual rate of stillbirth reduction in the UK has been slower than in the vast majority of comparable high-income countries.

It is also important that all parents who experience pregnancy and baby loss and need specialist psychological support can access it and can do so in a timely fashion. Too often, people who experience a psychiatric illness after their loss do not receive the support they need. I am proud that Labour supported this year’s Parental Bereavement (Leave and Pay) Act 2018. However, I know that many parents and caregivers entitled to bereavement support do not have access to appropriate mental health support. Right now, most mental health support is only available to mothers, and is focused on women who are pregnant or who already have a baby. This support often takes place in neonatal units, which understandably—as we heard earlier from the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole—can add to trauma.

Mental health support for those who have lost a baby must take place in appropriate places and must be available for the entire family unit including fathers, siblings, grandparents and so on. Coping with grief over the loss of a baby is something that all family members will need time and space for. Men and women may grieve differently, and it needs to be acknowledged that fathers can be forgotten in this experience, particularly as they may express less emotion, which can be misunderstood as indifference to the loss of their baby. Dad Keith has talked to the charity Tommy’s about the stillbirth of his second born, a son named Owen. He said:

“I had to go back to work straight away. It was a good distraction. I ran a lot and I kept doing that. I signed up for marathons. Running got me away for a few hours at a time and gave me a way to switch off. I wasn’t right for at least six months after. I was functioning but I was on autopilot. I wasn’t myself. People might not have noticed too much.”

I urge the Government to develop a national standard with guidance to support the planning, funding and delivery of specialist services with psychological support for those going through the loss of a baby. It is also important that bereavement-trained midwives or gynaecological counsellors are available in every hospital —not part-time, but full-time—whenever parents need them. Let us not forget that many stillbirths and neonatal deaths are sudden and unexpected. It is a hugely traumatic experience and people need support immediately, so trained individuals are so important.

I would like to end by saying a few words about the national bereavement care pathway. The final independent evaluation of the national bereavement care pathway wave of two pilot sites was published in May 2019 and provides evidence that the NBCP has improved bereavement care received by parents after the loss of a baby. It is commendable that both the former Prime Minister and the former Health Minister, Jackie Doyle-Price, both endorsed the roll-out of the programme. The NBCP is increasingly attracting interest from NHS trusts across the country, and I hope that many more adopt this approach.

In conclusion, the debates that we have had over the past few years and again this evening underline the importance of the work undertaken by hon. Members and the many charities in this sector. It means that the silence that Members have spoken about today is now beginning to end. I cannot overstate how courageous those who have spoken out about their personal experiences are, or how influential those interventions are proving to be. I hope that those who have spoken out continue to have the courage to talk about what we need to do to improve care and support for bereaved families.