Dear Editor: We were interested in the recent article by Redshaw et al. which reported higher rates of mental health and relationship difficulties among women who held their stillborn baby.1 We agree this is an important topic, but after reviewing the article in depth, we would like to raise several concerns.
(1) We note that this was a retrospective survey with a 30.2% response rate in which just 3% of women did not see and 16% did not hold their baby; these limitations were acknowledged but we believe they also restrict the ability to draw broad conclusions. (2) There was little exploration into the reasons why women did not hold their babies and if they had any regrets about their decisions. While four out of five women reported they did not hold because they could not or did not want to, the study did not account for the fact that women who declined may be fundamentally different at baseline, so that mental health outcomes may be due to underlying differences in mothers rather than their choices or experiences at birth. (3) While the authors emphasize that holding was associated with a trend toward worse mental health outcomes, their actual multivariable analyses show that at 9 months, the only statistically significant difference was higher odds of anxiety. Pre-existing anxiety could contribute to a woman's hesitance to hold the baby after delivery and separately serves as a predictor of postpartum mental health. (4) Even though there are many validated, widely-tested measures to assess postpartum depression,2-5 anxiety,6 and PTSD,7, 8 in both live birth and bereaved mothers, this study used non-validated self-report measures which leads to the need for very cautious interpretation of the results. (5) The factors which have been demonstrated to be strong predictors of postpartum depression and PTSD include prior mental health conditions, interpersonal violence, and lack of social support.9-12 This study did not measure or control for any of these factors. (6) Another issue not addressed in this article is the well-acknowledged preference by parents to be given the option to see or hold their baby and strong evidence that the majority of women are satisfied with their decision.10, 13 Events surrounding the birth of a stillborn baby can have lasting impact on how a mother experiences, remembers, and copes with this event.14 The decision to see or hold a stillborn baby warrants additional investigation, but research must adjust for the known confounders which have been shown to predict development of mental health problems. Moreover, there should be recognition that the experience of a mother at the time of delivery is complex, and multiple pre-existing and intrapartum factors may affect subsequent outcomes and grief.
In summary, we believe it is not possible to reach a conclusion from this study about whether the decision to see or hold a stillborn baby is detrimental or helpful to bereaved parents and urge research to gain a more nuanced understanding of the factors which contribute to parental experiences at the time of delivery and which may influence long-term mental health outcomes. We strongly urge health care providers to continue to offer women the option to hold their stillborn baby, and to make this offer in a respectful, supportive, and normative manner.