The idea of a much longed-for baby dying at birth is truly harrowing. Tragically, 10 stillbirths are registered every day in the UK - but now special cuddle cots are helping families cope with their devastating loss...
When Kathriona Connelly lost her baby at 34 weeks, the pain she suffered was unimaginable.
Her daughter Gloria was born prematurely, just hours after doctors broke the devastating news that they couldn't find a heartbeat.
Kathriona, 34, says: "I sobbed constantly as I laboured for two hours before giving birth. There are no words to describe the agony of having to say hello and goodbye to your child all at once."
Bereaved mum Kathriona introduces her daughter Imelda to Gloria for the first time (Credit: Kathriona Connelly)
But the one thing that helped her through her grief was using a cuddle cot which enabled her to spend five days with her precious baby.
Cuddle cots are a cooling mattress that stop the baby's body deteriorating, that can be placed in a cot or even a pram. It allows parents to stay with them for days or even weeks before their funeral, hugging them, dressing them and taking them out for walks.
Worryingly, Britain is ranked 33rd out of 35th in the developed world for its stillbirth rates due to problems including a lack of midwives, insufficient monitoring, infection and genetic conditions. But in more than half of all cases, the cause of death is unknown.
The loss of a child to still birth has been brought to the forefront by the recent harrowing storyline in Coronation Street where Kym Marsh's character, Michelle Connor, lost a child at 21 weeks, echoing Kym's devastating real-life experience in 2009 when she lost her son Archie at 23 weeks.
The use of cuddle cots to help parents cope is becoming widely known, too. Charlotte Szakacs, 21, and her husband Attila, 28, were heartbroken when their daughter Evlyn died four weeks after birth, after suffering severe health complications due to a rare chromosomal abnormality.
The couple were able to stay with Eveyln for 16 days using a cuddle cot, and documented their time with her - even taking her on trips to the park in a pram and cuddling her.
Charlotte said: "Having that time with her made such a difference. Being able to do so many of the things you imagine, like taking her out in her pram really helped emotionally."
Kathriona with her husband Anthony, and daughter Imelda (Credit: Kathriona Connelly)
Erica Stewart, a Bereavement Support and Awareness Specialist from Sands (Stillbirth and neonatal death charity), explains: "Cuddle cots can help with the healing process. When you have a stillborn baby it's a huge and brutal shock. You have expectations of what you will do with your baby, taking them home, bathing them, dressing them, reading them stories and introducing them to everyone. And it's all snatched away from you. It's the most devastating loss.
"But still being able to do those things, albeit in a different way, can create some memories for you."
Kathriona found a cuddle cot helped her hugely. The office worker - who lives in Dublin with her husband, Anthony McDonagh, 35, and three-year-old daughter Imelda - started having contractions at 34 weeks in April 2016. She rushed to hospital but when she arrived, doctors confirmed she was in labour but couldn't find her baby's heartbeat on the monitor.
Kathriona says: "I felt like I was in a nightmare. It was the most surreal and harrowing thing I've ever had to do.
"When she was born, the nurses let me hold her. But she just seemed so perfect that I couldn't stop sobbing – I wanted to hold her forever."
A cuddle cot can provide grieving parents with extra precious time (Credit: Flexmort)
Nurses then cleaned Gloria and the chaplain carried out a blessing and naming service, as the family had requested.
Kathriona says: "After the blessing, the nurses guided us to a private room where Gloria was placed in a cuddle cot. They showed us how it worked and the temperature it should be at and then left us to grieve.
"Initially I struggled to cope and at 6am the next morning, I had a panic attack and tried to run away.
"It was a fight or flight reaction, but my husband calmed me down and I realised that I needed to spend more time with Gloria.
"We stayed with her for five days and cuddled her, dressed her in a knitted hat, tiny baby grows. We also brought our families to the hospital to say goodbye to her. They all thought she was beautiful. It was incredibly sad and explaining it to Imelda was heart-wrenching.
"We'd sit up at night and discuss whether she had her daddy's eyes or my nose and we'd cuddle her as often as we could."
After five days, Kathriona finally felt ready to say goodbye to her little girl.
She says: "I couldn't bear the thought of Gloria being dirty when we left her. So I asked to have a bath with her. And as I sat cradling my daughter, I knew it was time to leave."
"But I have memories of her that I can draw on in the dark times. That's why cuddle cots are so important."
Kathriona is now pregnant again (Credit: Kathriona Connelly)
Kathriona - who is due to give birth to a girl in June - adds: "No parents should have to experience a stillbirth, but I'm so grateful we got to spend time with Gloria".
Closer readers Holly Carter and Karen Jackson offered their stories, telling us what it meant to them to be able to use a cuddle cot. Karen told us: "Our baby boy was stillborn in January 2014 at nearly 39 weeks. We had him in the room with us in a cold cot. It meant we were able to spend time with him and hold him and cuddle him as much as we wanted. Sadly, his skin was so delicate we couldn't bathe him or dress him. The cold cot gave us some precious time with our son that we would not of been able to have otherwise. Those moments will be treasured forever."
Holly explained: "Our youngest daughter was stillborn two years ago this June. Being able to spend time with her and look at her beautiful face will stay with me forever. As a mum, I wouldn't ever want any parent to miss out on a cuddle with their child regardless of the outcome. We both got to hold her, kiss her and talk to her. I guess unless you have been there, you wouldn't ever understand how precious those moments are. The first and last time you will spend time with your baby."
We spoke to Erica Stewart from baby bereavement charity Sands to answer your questions (Credit: Getty Images)
CUDDLE COT FAQs
We spoke to Erica Stewart, Bereavement Support and Awareness Specialist at Sands, to answer your questions on cuddle cots. Erica, who sadly lost a baby herself, has worked at Sands for over 20 years, and even advised Coronation Street writers on the recent stillbirth storyline featuring Kym Marsh, who also suffered a late miscarriage herself.
What are cuddle cots?
A cuddle cot is a cooling pad which can be inserted into any type of baby bed – from Moses baskets to carry-cots, prams to cots – to allow the families of babies who have passed away time to grieve.
Erica says: "The cuddle cots are either a unit on wheels with a refrigerated unit in the bottom of them, and then there's a mattress put on top to keep the baby cooler. Basically, they're just keeping the baby cool so that the baby's appearance doesn't change as quickly as it might do without a cuddle cot. Or if the baby or is a bit smaller, it could be placed onto a refrigerated mattress in the bottom of a Moses basket."
When babies pass away in hospital, their bodies are normally taken to the hospital morgue straight away, but a cuddle cot – also known as a cold cot – allows the parents to spend time with their babies and bond with them as it slows down the natural changes in their body after death.
The most popular cuddle cot at the moment is made by Flexmort, and has undergone extensive testing by hospitals to check for the possibility of infection and reduce the risk of microbial growth.
"A cuddle cot is an extension of time, allowing bereaved parents the chance to make memories." (Credit: Getty Images)
What is a cuddle cot used for?
If a mother has suffered a late miscarriage or stillbirth, or if a baby has passed away later on after the birth, the family may want to use a cuddle cot to spend more time with and get to know their baby before the body is taken away.
Erica says: "A cuddle cot is an extension of time, allowing bereaved parents the chance to make memories in hospital after their baby has died. When a baby dies in hospital, whether it's a stillbirth or a neonatal death, parents are now offered choices as to what they can do with their baby. It enables parents to spend longer with their baby before the baby's appearance starts to change.
"They're offered the choice to see and hold their baby, take photographs and hand and footprints and spend time with their baby. A lot of hospitals' maternity units in the UK now have designated bereavement rooms for parents that are away from crying babies and pregnant women so that they can spend time with their baby and not feel rushed.
"If your baby has died, the only memories that parents have are the ones that created in hospital."
How much do cuddle cots cost?
A cuddle cot costs roughly around £1,500, but they should be available through your hospital, if they have one. It is worth asking your midwife or health professional about it if you have any questions at all, but you should be made aware of the option if it is available to you.
Erica says: "A lot of bereaved parents who have used a cuddle cot may choose to raise money for their local maternity unit. A lot of maternity units only have one and bereaved parents often come out of hospital and they want to raise money for another cuddle cot. They are expensive but then it is a one-off expense.
"It's used at the hospital and then left at the hospital; the parents don't buy it themselves. They donate the money to the hospital, and then they purchase it."
How long have cuddle cots been around for?
Cuddle cots have become available in the last five years.
Erica says: "Years ago, the baby was just taken away and parents were told they didn't want to see 'that' as if they'd given birth to a monster or something that was so awful that they weren't allowed to see their baby. In most cases, babies are absolutely beautiful and just look like they're sleeping. It's a positive step in the right direction."
Many bereaved parents choose to raise money for their local hospital to be able to buy a cuddle cot (Credit: Getty Images)
Do all hospitals have cuddle cots available?
Not all hospitals have cuddle cots available, but most hospitals will have at least one. According to Flexmort, 92% of hospitals in the UK have at least one cuddle cot.
Erica says: "It's not across the board at the moment – but we know that more and more maternity units are trying to get at least one. The aim would be to have two or three."
How can you get a cuddle cot?
If a parent loses their baby, they will be offered the use of a cuddle cot whilst in the hospital by their healthcare professional. They are only available through the hospital.
Erica says: "The process would be that if there was one available at the hospital, the staff would be aware of it and they would be offered a cuddle cot. Parents wouldn't necessarily know to ask for one because they might not know that it's an available option. It would solely rely on the healthcare professionals looking after them to offer it as an option.
"Some funeral directors are starting to get cuddle cots, but it is such a cost that that's not across the board at the moment."
Can you take a cuddle cot home?
Yes. If your hospital has a cuddle cot available, you are allowed to take the cuddle cot home so that you can take your baby home and let other members of the family see them and spend time with them too.
Erica says: "It allows parents to spend longer with their baby without feeling rushed, as they may do whilst in hospital. They also might worry that the baby's appearance is going to change so they think they only have one or two days.
"The parents don't have to keep the baby in the cuddle cot – they're allowed to take the baby out and take photos, maybe a lock of hair. It can also be an opportunity for other family members like other children or grandparents or even close friends to meet the baby as well.
"A lot of parents like to take their baby home because that's what they would have done in other circumstances. It gives them a chance to nurture their baby as they would have done – they can dress their baby, cuddle their baby, put their baby back in the cot, meet other family members.
"For mums, particularly when they're feeling so maternal, it gives them a chance to be maternal towards their baby. I think it's a really important change in the way that we offer that bereavement care and cuddle cots are a big part of that."
A mother who has needed medica attention after the birth may want to use the cuddle cot to spend time with her baby (Credit: Getty Images)
What are the benefits of using a cuddle cot?
Parents-to-be are expecting to have a baby to take care of for the rest of their lives. When this isn't the reality anymore, whether they suffer a stillbirth or a neonatal death, they can be left with nothing. The cuddle cot allows grieving parents to bond with their babies and make memories that they wouldn't otherwise have been able to do.
Erica says: "It gives parents in an uncontrollable situation that control – whether they want to spend time with their baby in hospital or want to take their baby home and keep it in a cuddle cot.
"Cuddle cots allow parents to create memories, a really important process for parents which does have an impact on their future wellbeing. If they've had a positive experience and been offered a cuddle cot and they're given time to make that decision, we know that definitely has a positive impact on their future wellbeing.
"The other reason might be if the mum has had surgery or a procedure after giving birth, then she can see the baby a day or two later and use the cuddle cot. Parents do really value that time and it's an important part of the care."
Do bereaved parents have to use a cuddle cot?
Bereaved parents are not forced into using a cuddle cot by any means – it is just an available option if they would like it.
Erica says: "Some parents do decide not to see their baby. It's all about choice, I must stress. Parents aren't encouraged – they're offered the choice sensitively.
"The parents might at first decline because it's probably not something they've thought about but if they're given good advice, then they can be sensitively asked again later.
"It's all about normalising the experience so the parents don't think it's odd or feel isolated. More often than not, if parents are given good bereavement care and they're offered these choices and given time to make these decisions, it's not something they normally regret doing. I've never known of a parent who has regretted it.
"Some parents have photos taken with their babies and they might not look at the photos until later on. But a lot of parents will normally take up the offer to spend time with the baby. Or you might have one parent that wants to hold and see the baby and the other parent doesn't."
"It's about choice, even if they have declined even after being asked a couple of times, we know that parents can live much better with a choice that they've made rather than one that has been forced upon them."
If you have any questions about cuddle cots, you can contact Sands.
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