Experiencing a miscarriage or a still-birth can leave parents feeling grief stricken and helpless, as the excitement and anticipation of everything they have been planning for and looking forward to is taken away. A farewell service such as a funeral gives an outlet to come together with friends and family to express grief, but parents that miscarry often do not have this opportunity. There are now more options for parents who lose a baby, with special ceremony and service options when a baby dies.

With sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), when a baby under the age of one dies suddenly with no explanation, it can be incredibly distressing for parents. In these circumstances, medial professionals and police are called to perform a death scene investigation. This is then followed by an autopsy and a review of the baby’s medical history. A diagnosis of SIDS is made if the baby’s death remains unexplained after the investigation.

Legal definitions referring to a baby’s death

There are legal definitions that determine what type of documentation needs to be completed when a baby dies. These definitions are clinical and have legal purposes, but are not meant to define how you grieve or what you feel around the loss of a baby.

Miscarriage and stillbirth occur while the baby is inside the womb. A baby is still-born if they died in the womb after 20 weeks of gestation, or weighed 400g or more at the time of birth. A miscarriage is when the baby was less than 400g and less than 21 weeks gestation. These medical definitions mean different legal requirements and obligations, but this does not at all define or reflect on the depth of grief you may be feeling.

Neonatal death is the term used to describe when a newborn baby dies. An early neonatal death occurs within 7 days of birth and a late neonatal death occurs from 8 to 28 days after birth. An infant death is when a baby dies between 28 days and 12 months. A sudden infant death during this time is referred to as SIDS/Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, SUDI/Sudden Unexpected Death of Infant, or cot-death.

Registering a baby’s birth and death

Depending on how and when a baby dies, there are different requirements for legally registering the details of birth and death. Take the time you need to be ready for these processes; nothing has to be done right away. Having support people with you can be important as filling out forms can be confronting and incredibly heartbreaking.

Unless your baby died as a result of miscarriage or stillbirth, you are required to register their birth, as well as their death. Registering a birth is free, and must be done within two months of birth. Find out how to register the birth of your baby. You will need to register the birth before you can register the death.

If you have engaged the services of a funeral director or other funeral service provider, they can help to register a baby’s death. If you are organising the funeral or farewell yourself, you will need to register the death within three working days of the baby’s burial or cremation. You will need to fill in a form to register a death with Births, Deaths and Marriages. It is free to register a death, but there’s a fee to order a death certificate.

There are no requirements for registering a miscarried baby’s birth.mYou can bury your baby in a place of your choosing, including in a cemetery, urupā, or cremation. If you choose to bury your baby in a private place, ensure you pick somewhere it is unlikely to be disturbed and you bury the body at least one metre deep. A still-born baby must have its birth registered within two months of the birth. You do not have to register the death, but baby must be buried or cremated through official channels. Many cemeteries have areas especially for still-born babies, or the option to place baby in an existing family plot.

When a post mortem is conducted

If a baby dies suddenly, whether at home or in a public setting, the police and coroner will be involved to try and find the cause. With neonatal deaths and sudden infant deaths the coroner may decide to conduct a post mortem, which is a surgical procedure for gathering information about why the death occurred. During the post mortem the body will be examined for any signs of injury, infection or disease that may explain the cause of death, and in the case of neonatal deaths the placenta may be examined.

Parents have the right to object, and the objection will be considered by the coroner before a final decision is made. The coroner or the staff at the duty coroner’s office will be able to provide more information about objections.

Before the post mortem, the baby will be transported to a mortuary by a funeral director employed by the coroner at no cost to the parents. If parents wish to travel to the mortuary to be near their baby, the duty coroner’s office can help arrange this, however the cost of transport and accommodation is at the expense of the family. Following the post mortem, the baby can be picked up by family or by a funeral director employed by the family.

Supporting someone after the loss of a baby

It may be surprising to learn that one in four pregnancies in New Zealand ends in a loss. Because miscarriage and stillbirth are not talked about, this often makes it harder for people to know what to say and how to respond. However, saying nothing can often make it much harder for bereaved parents, who may feel like their loss is not being acknowledged, and this can lead to feelings of confusion, isolation and intense sadness that they are unable to share.

As with any other significant loss, parents need to feel loved and supported by those around them. By simply reaching out and acknowledging their loss and letting them know you are there to support them is a simple yet important way to let them know they are not alone. Using the baby’s name is also an important way to acknowledge their baby.

If one of your staff or colleagues has lost a baby, the Wheturangitia website has important information on how to support someone returning to work after the loss of a baby. The most important thing to remember is that losing a baby can be as devastating as any other loss of a loved one, and should be recognised as such.

Paid parental and bereavement leave

  • Paid Parental Leave (PPL) – if you were approved for PPL you will still be able to take this if your baby has died. Once you return to work you are no longer eligible for PPL.
  • Best Start – parents of live-born children who die before they turn three are eligible for an extra 4-week payment of Best Start. Payments do not start until PPL ends.
  • Bereavement leave – all employees that have been with their employer for six months and have worked an average of 10 hours a week and at least one hour every week or 40 hours every month, are entitled to take three days paid leave in the event of a bereavement, miscarriage or stillbirth. Some employers will offer more than this minimum entitlement; it is important to speak with your employer about your needs.

A farewell service for a baby who dies in utero, either by miscarriage or stillbirth, can be a very important part of the grieving and healing process, to acknowledge this significant loss.