Ending a pregnancy for fetal abnormality

Deciding whether to see, hold and name the baby

Many parents may not know whether they want to see and hold the baby. They may fear that they're going to respond badly to the baby's abnormalities; they may dread seeing something strange and finding themselves unable to cope. Some may just want to 'move on' and treat the experience like a miscarriage. Deciding how to handle the situation is a matter of personal choice - as one woman said, 'it's just a very personal thing and there's no right or wrong, it's just what's right for you.'

The first sight of the baby prompted many emotions in parents, though in general most people were more affected by the baby's fragility and tiny size than by his/her physical abnormalities. Many were reassured that the baby looked peaceful; others felt relieved that the baby's diagnosis had been right and that they hadn't ended a healthy pregnancy. Some babies including those with Down's syndrome looked - as one woman put it - 'like any baby, but very small'. Several people described their babies as 'perfect' and 'beautiful' and were profoundly moved by what they saw. 

Although sometimes parents are encouraged by health professionals to see the baby, people made different choices. Most people who decided to see the baby found it helped them accept what had happened, though one woman said it triggered guilt for her. 

One or two women had not wanted to see the baby initially - one woman said it wouldn't help her at all and declined to see the baby - another woman had seen her baby because she was advised to, and had mixed feelings about whether it helped her. Whether or not to see and hold the baby could become an issue between couples - several women we talked to said that their partners were unsure about whether they wanted to see the baby. 

One woman who had ended two pregnancies decided, against advice, not to see her first baby because she 'didn't want to make a big deal' of it, and she later regretted her decision. With her second termination she decided to see the baby and was shocked by her appearance, but said that it had been the right thing for her to do.

Many parents expected the baby to be 'baby-like' and were shocked by his/her dark red colour and almost-transparent skin. Several women wished they had been better prepared for the baby's appearance. Most babies were very small - anything from 2 to 4 lbs depending on his/her gestational age - which made several women worry about holding them. 

Some women had seen the baby after the birth, but felt even more strongly in a day or two of leaving hospital that they needed to see the baby again. Some women wanted reassurance that the baby was being cared for properly, others just wanted another chance to be with the baby and were very grateful to staff for making it possible.

Babies with visible external abnormalities were generally carefully dressed by midwives or wrapped up in a shawl so that parents saw them at their best. Most parents were grateful this was done - though several felt midwives took too long cleaning and dressing the baby - because it helped them accept the baby. Others had disliked seeing their babies dressed up in special clothes (see 'Going through labour and birth'). 

Holding and touching the baby

Parents made different choices about holding and touching the baby. Some parents felt that looking was as far as they could go, and appreciated not being encouraged to make more physical contact with the baby than they felt they could manage. Many people felt that seeing and holding the baby was intensely personal and that people's feelings should be respected. Several women said their partners had definitely not wanted to hold the baby.

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Other women felt that physical contact with the baby was essential and helped to release pent-up feelings of sadness. Some women held their babies for hours - cuddling and talking to them sometimes through the night.

Several women said they slept overnight in hospital with the baby in the same room, and one couple put the baby between them in the hospital bed and had fallen asleep. 

Naming the baby

Parents felt differently about whether to name the baby and how they wanted it done, if at all. Sometimes parents asked the hospital chaplain to name the baby when they said prayers or gave a blessing, sometimes parents decided they wanted to wait a while before they decided about a name. Sometimes babies were named at private naming ceremonies or at funerals or cremations (see 'Saying goodbye to the baby'). Several people said they didn't want to give the baby a name because they felt that the baby hadn't really 'lived'. 

Occasionally couples disagreed about whether or not to name the baby, and several women said that they had assigned the baby a name anyway. One man said how important it was to him to be able to name his son after his father and to have heard his son's name called out in synagogue. One man explained why he felt differently from his wife about naming the baby but was happy for her to go ahead. 

Clearly not everyone we talked to had been able to see the baby - those who ended the pregnancy around 13 weeks and had had a surgical termination were unable to see or hold their babies. And a woman who had had a selective reduction of her pregnancy (she was expecting twins, one of whom had Down's syndrome) was unable to see or hold her baby because he had not been born which she found difficult (see 'Ending the pregnancy surgically'). 

Last reviewed July 2017.


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