Born in silence: Parents draw attention to stillborn babies

Born in silence: Parents draw attention to stillborn babies
The Spraker family sitting on a bench they had dedicated to their daughter Emily who was stillborn in 2003. Courtesy Seattle Children's Hospital.

Amanda and Brent Spraker of West Seattle were expecting their first child to be born at any moment when they went into their doctor's office for a standard 40-week check up in 2003. They discussed the final details of their birthing plan and, just for good measure, checked the baby's heart beat.

There was no sound. 

After a 9-month-long, completely normal pregnancy, the Sprakers’ daughter, Emily, died in the womb. The parents went from feeling absolute joy to total devastation. 

"It happens in an instant," Amanda says. "Your heart just falls to the floor."

Ten years later, the Sprakers are sharing their story in a video they made with Seattle Children's Hospital in hopes of drawing more attention to a tragedy they say our society is hesitant to talk about: stillborn babies.

A silent crisis

According to Seattle Children's Hospital, there are approximately 26,000 stillborn babies in the United States each year – averaging one every 21 minutes. Amanda and Brent say they knew nothing about stillbirths until they lost their own daughter.

"It’s just not talked about,” Brent says. “I never knew anyone that had a stillborn baby before we went through this.”

Dr. Craig Rubens, executive director of Seattle Children’s Global Alliance to Prevent Prematurity and Stillbirth (GAPPS), says expecting parents should talk about this potential complication. 

“There needs to be some education that not all pregnancies end the way we want them to,” Rubens says. 

GAPPS created the video "Born in Silence" with the Sprakers and other parents of stillborn children to draw more attention to the issue; support grieving parents and encourage research that could prevent future stillbirths. 

Handle with care

The Sprakers weren't prepared to lose their baby and were surprised to learn Amanda would still have to deliver her child. 

"I was in shock," Amanda says. "I had just been given the worst news ever and then I was told I was going to have to deliver the baby. It was excruciating."

Through 10 hours of labor, the Sprakers could hear other families’ healthy babies crying around them on the maternity floor. 

“We wanted anything but to be there,” Brent says. “I wanted to be done. I wanted to be out of there.”

At the time, Amanda says going through labor was the last thing she wanted to do. But looking back, she says the experience helped her begin to heal.

“It was the best thing we could have done,” Amanda says. 

Seeing their daughter for the first time, the Sprakers were amazed at how perfect she looked. 

“I just lost it,” Brent says. “I burst into tears. She was a seven-and-a-half pound, beautiful baby girl.”

The couple spent hours bathing, dressing and holding their daughter. They took pictures of her, and Brent’s father baptized her. They named her Emily Louise.

“It helped everyone to process,” Amanda says. “To see who she was and spend time with her.”

While the Sprakers say they received excellent care, Rubens says the medical community should provide better counseling and guidance to the parents of stillborn children.  

“It has a devastating impact on families because they don’t know how to grieve that loss and we don’t provide them with adequate services,” Rubens says. “These parents grieve the loss of a stillborn child just like they would grieve the loss of a live baby.”

After two nights in the hospital, the Sprakers had to drive home without Emily.

“There’s just this emptiness in your stomach and gut that doesn’t go away,” Brent says.  

The Sprakers home had been filled with baby things, which both of their mothers packed up before the couple came home.

“That nursery door stayed closed for a long time,” Amanda says. 

Sharing stories 

Rubens says parents of stillborn children can only grieve and heal if they have the opportunity to talk about their lost child. Unfortunately, he says many people have trouble discussing the taboo subject.

“We all have a problem dealing with the death of a child that hasn’t been given a chance,” Rubens says. 

Amanda says she was forced to broach the subject with acquaintances who had seen her pregnant and would ask about her baby. 

“Most people don’t know how to react,” Amanda says. 

Some people who didn’t know what to say simply avoided them, Brent says. Others were more helpful, calling Emily by her name and offering support. 

“The ability to say ‘I have no idea what you’re going through but I’m here for you. How can I help?’ is so powerful,” Amanda says. 

Trying again

Rubens says some parents think they are reproductively challenged after having a stillborn baby and are scared to try to have a child again.

“People said we could have healthy babies, but we were zero for one,” Amanda says. “I was paranoid and afraid. There was always this part of me that didn’t believe that.”

When Amanda did get pregnant again, she asked her doctor to induce labor just before she reached 40 weeks. 

“I was a complete wreck,” Amanda says. “If we lost her, I didn’t know what we were going to do.”

But the Sprakers were blessed with a happy, healthy baby girl they named Molly. 

“It was an absolute tremendous joy,” Amanda says. “Emily was very much with us that day.”

Years later, the Sprakers had a third daughter, Sarah. Both girls know about their big sister and all three share the same middle name.

“Emily was just as much our child as our other two daughters,” Amanda says. 

The need for answers

Rubens says 70 percent of stillbirths in the United States can be traced to infections, problems with the placenta or accidents with the umbilical cord - as was the case with Emily. The causes of the remaining 30 percent are unknown. 

“We need to do a lot more research around why babies die in the womb,” Rubens says. 

That research is made difficult because many families chose not to perform an autopsy on their deceased child. 

Also, because stillborn babies are not given birth certificates, they are difficult to count and track. There is currently legislation before the Washington State Senate which would require all stillborn babies be given a “Certificate of Birth Resulting in Stillbirth.” 

Rubens hopes that as families like the Sprakers continue to share their stories, more funding will be dedicated to research that could save babies like Emily in the future. 

“I think we have a lot of room as care providers to learn from families and their experiences,” Rubens says.