Today, Tommy’s release their new campaign, #SleepOnSide, which aims to empower women to change their sleep position in order to ensure safer pregnancies and to reduce the rates of stillbirth.
When we found out that Orla had died at 37 weeks, we were told there and then not to expect any answers as to why. I don’t think I had even had the opportunity to wipe the gel from my stomach following that devastating ultrasound before we were being delivered this blow. We were advised that it was ‘just one of those things’, that sadly babies can die suddenly and without any known cause. The initial hours that followed those moments in the labour ward triage room were a blur, but I will always remember the utter confusion that this could happen to healthy babies; that they could die – just like that.
And although Orla’s post-mortem did indeed find no answers, I did not believe, and continue not to believe, that there was no reason for her death. There must be a reason, but sadly medical science has yet to find out exactly why babies die and therefore why the UK stillbirth rates remain atrociously high. Coming from a healthcare background, I understand the political issues that underlie funding for services and research: those who shout the loudest are the ones that catch the attention of government and therefore the money. And because stillbirth remains shrouded in silence and shame, the amount of funding is limited and therefore the questions remain unanswered.
But Tommy’s don’t accept that – and this is why I support them wholeheartedly.
As someone who has experienced first-hand the trauma of stillbirth, I was invited to come and review this campaign when it was being pulled together. There is an uncomfortable push and pull about new research and campaigns such as this – you hope from the bottom of your heart that no one else should have to suffer the pain of losing their baby, yet you feel an overwhelming sense of sadness and anger that your own baby wasn’t afforded the same opportunity. I also went in with a dread that I would somehow be left feeling that Orla’s death was indeed my fault, and that I would need to live with proof of this blame for the rest of my life. But Tommy’s really understand this, which is why they ask real people with varying pregnancy experiences for their feedback.
So, what does the study show?
The research (The Midlands and North of England Stillbirth Study; MiNESS) is the fourth (and largest) study to find a link between stillbirth and maternal sleep position. Led by Professor Alexander Heazell, Clinical Director at the Tommy’s Stillbirth Research Centre in Manchester, they found that women who go to sleep lying on their back in the third trimester have a 2.3-fold increased risk of late stillbirth compared with women who go to sleep on their side – that’s a greater increased risk of late stillbirth than the risk caused by smoking (a 1.9-fold increased risk). This means that If all pregnant women in the UK went to sleep on their side in the third trimester, MiNESS estimates a 3.7% decrease in stillbirth, saving around 130 babies’ lives a year.
Their advice as a result is simple: for all pregnant women in their third trimester to ensure that they go to sleep on their side.
This is for all periods of sleep, even daytime naps. Of course, we can control what position we go to sleep in, but not how we end up – but that is okay. What matters is the position in which you go to sleep; so if you wake up on your back, then all you just need to do is to roll over again
I have always questioned whether Orla died when I was napping on the sofa, or whether this at least set off a catalogue of events that led to her death. I wasn’t on my back, nor was I in a particularly obscure position, but I feel that this may have been when things started to feel different. Having heard Professor Heazell speak about this research, I feel reassured by his explanation that stillbirth is likely to be a number of factors that combine to form the imperfect storm; that no one thing will cause a (currently unexplained) stillbirth, but a variety of things sadly colliding at the wrong moment. And because stillbirth is very hard to research, because so much is unseen, this makes a lot of sense.
Nevertheless, doing anything and everything you can to ensure a safer pregnancy is what will help to save babies lives – we know about not smoking or drinking, and now this is an additional tool that can help empower women to know that they are doing the best they can for themselves and their baby. So, please watch the video, share the campaign far and wide and pass on this important information where you can.
And if you are someone who has tragically lived through the stillbirth of your baby, and you are having complex feelings towards new research and campaigns that come out, please know that you are not alone. I will always, always, wonder whether having this information could have saved Orla. However, I believe that this is a normal response in the context of the traumatically abnormal event of losing your child. I just need to try and remind myself that I did the best that I could with the information I had at that time; and although I can’t always believe this, I will forever continue to try.