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December 5, 2023

Six babies stillborn every day in Australia

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Nothing can prepare a family for stillbirth and each year, more than 2,000 Australian families experience the tragic and painful loss of a baby. In the past two decades, statistics have remained steady with, on average, six babies stillborn every day.

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

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.

Closing the equity gaps

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 remains hidden

Stillbirth is the most common form of perinatal death in Australia, accounting for seven in every 1,000 births. Yet for many families, the experience of stillbirth remains hidden because of stigma and a culture of silence. 

‘The Commission’s national standard will be the catalyst for real change to reduce the risk of stillbirth and help ease the grief for bereaved women and families.

Associate Professor Marles says that 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.’

Associate Professor Marles says that for many parents, 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.

A profoundly devastating experience

‘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.

The standard also seeks to ensure cultural safety and improve equity in care, particularly for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and those living in very remote areas, where the stillbirth rates are much higher – 11 and 12 deaths, respectively, in every 1,000 births.

‘We need to recognise that women from diverse backgrounds, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, may be less inclined to seek care from healthcare services that do not provide culturally safe care, which can prevent them from accessing maternity care. The way we provide care must take individual needs into account,’ said A/Professor Marles.

Defining expected care for women

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.

‘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.

A benchmark for the best care

‘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.

‘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.’

Professor Homer says the care provided to parents after a stillbirth should be compassionate and sensitive to their needs. ‘Many things can help grieving families, which may include spending time with their baby, organising mementos such as photos, or meaningful rituals such as a memorial service.

‘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.’

Assistant Minister for Health and Aged Care, The Hon. Ged Kearney MP, will launch the new clinical care standard at the 2022 Annual National Stillbirth Forum.

The Stillbirth Clinical Care Standard and resources are at: safetyandquality.gov.au/stillbirth-ccs.

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