My baby had been asphyxiated in my womb and I was told ‘it happens’

At 36 weeks pregnant, I was looking forward to taking a few weeks off to get ready for the birth of my second child, Bertie, a brother for Teddy. I’d had a difficult time with hyperemesis – extreme pregnancy-related sickness – for months, but had finally started to feel more normal again.

I’m a stylist and craft author, and the last job I had to do before maternity leave was a food shoot. It was a Friday afternoon in March 2018 and everyone was joking that I was going to give birth there and then.

Apart from the constant sickness, the pregnancy and scans had been normal. But suddenly, that afternoon, I started to feel strange. It was like I’d had a sudden rush of hormones, that feeling you get when your period is about to start.

With my first pregnancy, I hadn’t gone into labour. Teddy, now seven, didn’t want to come out and I had a C-section. I’d never experienced Braxton Hicks contractions and didn’t know what it would feel like when I was ready to give birth.

Panicking that labour was imminent, I rushed home to pack for the hospital. However, when I got home, that feeling went away. I was aware there was less movement but I wasn’t too concerned, and neither was my husband Brendan, 41, especially as we had a 36-week scan booked for Monday.

Like many women, I’d been told babies move less in the final stages of pregnancy – even though I now know this isn’t true.

At the scan, it was a complete shock when the sonographer turned around and said to me, “Your baby isn’t moving. It happens.” Those awful words were the way I found out my little baby boy, Bertie, had died in the womb. The umbilical cord had wrapped around his neck three times, which is very uncommon, and also tied into a “true knot” – a knot so tight it cannot be loosened by itself, which is also uncommon.

My baby had been asphyxiated in my womb and I was being told “it happens”. It seemed unreal. It’s like you’ve been run over. It’s so hard to process what’s happening. I was taken to a side room and a doctor told me, “You need to give birth to this baby.”

I’d desperately wanted to have a vaginal birth with Bertie. But not this way. I said,“No, I want a C-section.” The doctor advised against it and I couldn’t really believe I was having an argument – I’d just found out my baby had died.

Then, two specialist bereavement midwives came in and cleared everyone out of the room. They knew exactly what to say and what to do, and made everything so much better. I was taken to see the surgeon and our parents had arrived to support us.

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What happened next is a blur, but I remember thinking I could feel Bertie moving. I asked the surgeon to double-check my baby had gone. I was grasping at straws. He explained that displaced water and air in the womb can make it feel that way. I had a general anaesthetic, as I felt it would be too traumatic otherwise, but Brendan was there as our baby was delivered.

Coming round afterwards, it felt as if I was waking up from a dream. But it was real and my baby wasn’t there. It was horrific. I saw Bertie twice afterwards. The hospital keeps stillborn babies in special cold cots that preserve them. The first time, I screamed. He looked so much like Teddy.

Going home without the baby you have longed for is the hardest thing. Your body craves your baby. I was so desperate to hold him. Teddy had been so excited about having a brother and now I had to explain he wasn’t coming home. “I’m so sorry,” I said, feeling I’d let him down. He couldn’t understand.

There are practical things to do after a stillbirth, like registering the death and moving your baby to a crematorium. A brilliant charity, SiMBA, provides a memory box with two crocheted squares, so you don’t go away empty-handed. One was cremated with Bertie and the other one is always on my table. The cremation was devastating. Our friends who would have been Bertie’s godparents came and I read a poem I’d written, and we sang Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.

Recovery is a long process. You have to accept you’ll never be the same. It was like walking through mud and there were some very dark times for me and Brendan, but we decided early on we’d try for another baby. Six months after we lost Bertie, we were overjoyed to discover I was pregnant with my daughter Posey, now two. We were alert to the possibility of something going wrong. But the wonderful midwife, Jen, who I met when I lost Bertie, looked after me all the way through.

After Bertie’s stillbirth, I had a bee tattooed on my wrist, as we were going to call him Bertie Bee. Coincidentally, I later discovered Jen also had a tattoo of a bee on her wrist, and I wondered if subconsciously, in those dark hours in the hospital, I’d noted it. Brendan, who works as a designer, and I are both creative people. We met when we were students at St Martin’s School of Art, when I was 19. We’d both gone to the wrong room for a class, and it felt like fate.

We found that making things and creating something beautiful helped us get through the first weeks. When I was six months pregnant, the idea of creating Makebox.co, a craft subscription box, came to me. Sitting at our kitchen table, we made the Bee Kind embroidery box, in Bertie’s memory. We put the idea out there to the followers on my Instagram, @couturecraft, and got 350 orders on our site. With the pandemic, the crafting business went crazy. It’s been hard work but also fulfilling to have created something we are so proud of out of something so devastating.

We celebrated Posey’s safe arrival by creating an Over The Rainbow box, which raises money for children’s charity Tommy’s. A rainbow baby is one that arrives after a loss such as stillbirth or miscarriage. Posey brings such joy to us. Bertie is part of our lives, every day. We talk about him to the children and have a rose bush in the garden, where his ashes are scattered. Parents are given a glass angel at a baby loss service at the hospital every Christmas and I buy an ornament for his tree for his birthday. I’m passionate about campaigning for better midwife care and for every pregnant woman to understand the importance of counting kicks.

Nothing would have changed the outcome with Bertie – it’s hard to pick up the problem with the umbilical cord on a scan – but I want to share the message that your baby’s kicks don’t slow down in the final weeks. Babies kick right up until they’re born.

To parents in the same position, I’d say life grows around your grief. Life will never be easy but it does become easier, and you can carry on. You will become a different person – but a better person who thinks differently about things.

STILL BIRTHS – THE FACTS

+ In 2019, 2,763 babies were stillborn in the UK. In England and Wales, one in 255 births was a stillbirth.

+ The UK has a relatively high rate of infant mortality compared with other nations. The lowest rates are found in Japan, Sweden and Finland.

+ A reduction of movement in the womb can be a sign that a baby is getting less oxygen.

For more information, visit Tommys.org or sands.org.uk

To find out more about Hannah’s Craft boxes, visit makebox.co and Instagram @makebox.co

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