‘Everybody just wants some tangible memory of their child, that they did exist.”
Until recently, parents bereaved through stillbirth or neonatal death usually had little time to spend with their baby before the funeral. But specially designed "cuddle cots" are now available in every hospital in Ireland, giving parents an opportunity to bond with their child before they say their final goodbye.
"It's something that will haunt me, I think, until I die, the silence. Being at the birth of the other two children; a baby comes out and a baby cries and screams and it's all quite emotional. It's emotional again but it's just the silence – you want that baby to cry and she doesn't," says Anthony Casey.
Anthony and his wife Róisín’s third child, Ellen, was stillborn. Nothing prepared the couple for the shock of losing their child in April 2014, just two weeks before Róisín was booked in to have a Caesarean section.
“We didn’t take anything down from the attic until the last week, I don’t know why, I just had some inclination,” says Róisín.
“In the last week or two we had a scan and the stenographer said the placenta looked quite mature, they said it was fine, but we were kind of worried ourselves. My movements weren’t great. They told me to come in Thursday morning for my section, but I woke up the next morning and I didn’t have any movements. I don’t think I ever thought that she had died. We went back in and they couldn’t find a heartbeat . . . It’s something I’d never imagine to happen. You’re never told about it at your natal classes.”
While trying to come to terms with their loss, the chaplain at the Rotunda Hospital told the Caseys about the cuddle cot. The cot, which looks like a conventional Moses basket, is a cooling unit that allows families to spend extra time with their baby, by regulating its temperature.
The cot has a thin mattress which is filled with cold water and then connected to a cooling unit which is plugged in, keeping the mattress constantly cold. The blanket can also be taken out and moved into a different cot or surface if the parents wish.
The cuddle cots are provided by Féileacáin, a charity that provides support to anyone affected by the death of a baby during or after pregnancy.
It was established in 2010 by a group of bereaved parents, who found that there was little or no support there for parents who had experienced such a death.
"People who don't know that their baby will die are in trauma and shock, and the baby is buried before they even realise what has happened," says Mairie Cregan, founding member and chairwoman of Féileacáin.
“With the cuddle cot we can slow everything down. We can delay it and it means the baby will be kept in a way that parents will be able to stay with him or her for three or four days, and they are not going to deteriorate.”
Without access to a cuddle cot, the Caseys say their experience could have been much more emotionally taxing.
“We might not have brought her home,” says Róisín. “It takes the stress off you having to open every window in the house and everything like that. You don’t have to be worrying, especially if it’s summer and warm, the cot just looks after it . . . Everybody just wants some tangible memory of their child, that they did exist. Everyone is just striving to have a photo or a handprint, or something.”
The Caseys brought Ellen home for one day before her cremation. It meant that they could relax a bit more and not have to worry about contacting the hospital’s mortuary in advance to go and visit her.
Their neighbours, friends and family came to see Ellen, hold her, and take pictures with her. In particular, it allowed Ellen’s older brothers, Aron (7) and Darragh (5), who were uncomfortable holding Ellen in the hospital, to take what are now treasured pictures with their sister.
There is at least one cuddle cot available in every hospital in Ireland, and a number of community cots dotted around the country that allow parents to bring their baby home for up to a week.
Usually, information on the cuddle cots along with help, advice and support is first introduced to parents by their hospital through Féileacáin’s Memory Box.
The box contains the organisation’s contact numbers, useful information, an inkwell to capture the baby’s handprint, two teddies, a camera memory card and other supports.
The Rotunda, which now has three cots donated through Féileacáin, was initially apprehensive about accepting its first cot in 2012.
“I suppose because they were completely unknown and nowhere in the country was using them, no one could tell us locally what the reaction was,” says Trish Butler, a bereavement support midwife at the Rotunda Hospital.
“We were a bit hesitant but we had meetings with senior management and said ‘yes’, we’d take one and see how we got on with it, but it was brilliant from day one.”
The Rotunda alone experiences approximately 100 deaths each year between stillborn and neonatal deaths. The role that the cots play in helping grieving families cannot be underestimated, says Murphy.
“One of the first people who used it, she basically said that it created cherished memories of her baby that they would never have had the opportunity to have without it.
“Prior to having them, babies would have spent a little bit of time with the parents if that’s what they wanted, but they would have had to go to the mortuary because fairly soon, no matter what time of the year, hospitals are always very warm and the baby would start to change and their condition would deteriorate, so they wouldn’t have an extended opportunity to spend time with the baby.”
The Caseys, whose fourth child Sarah was born in October, remain heavily involved with Féileacáin. They go to its monthly support meetings, fundraising and memorial events, while Darragh and Aron get involved with any events run for siblings of bereaved children.
“I think the great thing that has come out of it is Féileacáin,” says Anthony. “If anyone has ever stood up to the plate, it’s them. Without them, I don’t know where I would be, personally, to be honest . . . I’m never going to move on, she’s our third child, she’ll always be part of the family. If I’m lucky enough to live till I’m 90, I’ll still be talking about her.”
This article was amended on May 11th, 2016. Trish Butler was initially mistakenly identified as Trish Murphy.