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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Mothers’ experience of their contact with their stillborn infant: An interpretative phenomenological analysis

Kirsty Ryninks1, Cara Roberts-Collins2, Kirstie McKenzie-McHarg3 and Antje Horsch45*

Author Affiliations

1 Psychological Health Service, University Hospitals Bristol NHS Foundation Trust, Level 6 Paul O’Gorman Building, Upper Maudlin Street, Bristol BS2 8BJ, UK

2 Department of Psychology, University of Bath, Claverton Down, North East Somerset BA2 7AY, Bath, UK

3 Department of Clinical Health Psychology, Warwick Hospital, Lakin Rd, Warwick CV34 5BW, UK

4 Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Research Unit, University Hospital Lausanne, Rue du Bugnon 25 A, Lausanne CH-1011 Lausanne, Switzerland

5 Department of Neonatology, University Hospital Lausanne, Avenue Pierre-Decker 2, CH-1011 Lausanne, Switzerland

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BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth 2014, 14:203  doi:10.1186/1471-2393-14-203

Published: 13 June 2014



Guidelines surrounding maternal contact with the stillborn infant have been contradictory over the past thirty years. Most studies have reported that seeing and holding the stillborn baby is associated with fewer anxiety and depressive symptoms among mothers of stillborn babies than not doing so. In contrast, others studies suggest that contact with the stillborn infant can lead to poorer maternal mental health outcomes. There is a lack of research focusing on the maternal experience of this contact. The present study aimed to investigate how mothers describe their experience of spending time with their stillborn baby and how they felt retrospectively about the decision they made to see and hold their baby or not.


In depth interviews were conducted with twenty-one mothers three months after stillbirth. All mothers had decided to see and the majority to hold their baby. Qualitative analysis of the interview data was performed using Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis.


Six superordinate themes were identified: Characteristics of Contact, Physicality; Emotional Experience; Surreal Experience; Finality; and Decision. Having contact with their stillborn infant provided mothers with time to process what had happened, to build memories, and to ‘say goodbye’, often sharing the experience with partners and other family members. The majority of mothers felt satisfied with their decision to spend time with their stillborn baby. Several mothers talked about their fear of seeing a damaged or dead body. Some mothers experienced strong disbelief and dissociation during the contact.


Results indicate that preparation before contact with the baby, professional support during the contact, and professional follow-up are crucial in order to prevent the development of maternal mental health problems. Fears of seeing a damaged or dead body should be sensitively explored and ways of coping discussed. Even in cases where mothers experienced intense distress during the contact with their stillborn baby, they still described that having had this contact was important and that they had taken the right decision. This indicates a need for giving parents an informed choice by engaging in discussions about the possible benefits and risks of seeing their stillborn baby.

Stillbirth; Mothers; Perinatal loss; Grief; Qualitative research; IPA; Maternal mental health