Child of Mine review – three stories that reveal the tragedy of stillbirth

The UK has one of the worst rates of stillbirth in the developed world, yet the subject is barely discussed. Perhaps more films like this dignified and moving documentary will change that

One in 200 babies born in the UK is not born alive. We have one of the worst stillbirth rates in the developed world. Child of Mine (Channel 4) took us through the story of three of them. There was Matilda, Fiona and Niall’s first baby, born at 41 weeks the day after their midwife could no longer find her heartbeat. “We’d had a scan the day before,” her mother says. “But she died overnight.” In the photographs taken to remember her by, after staff had dressed and swaddled her, she looks just as if she were sleeping. Impossible to believe that, when she has clearly so recently gone, she can’t be willed back to life. But if she could have been, of course, the people holding her would have made it so. “You feel a bond,” says Niall, remembering those first – last – hours with his daughter, “but obviously … it’s not quite what you were hoping for.”

They lost Matilda last year and Fiona is pregnant again, constantly monitored by hospital staff, all of them weighing the precious weeks of gestation against the possible signs of trouble that will demand an early delivery. They pore over the outputs of every scan, reading the runes and plotting to thwart the malevolent hand of fate before it touches her again.

We meet Vicky and Bruce, best friends since school and now expecting a baby together, as they await her delivery at 26 weeks. Vicky noticed that movement had stopped and a medical team confirmed the worst. “Half a per cent of babies don’t make it,” says Vicky in wonderment. “It seems so high.” It is better for a mother’s health to deliver in the usual way, so Vicky has been induced. Again, the baby is dressed and swaddled. Photographs and footprints are taken so that later, when the parents emerge from their shock, they have something tangible to remember her by. When Ruby is born, Bruce can hardly bring himself to look at her. “She’s still our baby, OK?” Vicky says, murmuring as softly to him as she has been to Ruby, before turning back to her. “Bye bye, my little girl. Sleep tightly. We’ll see you again one day.”

The cameras are there when the final couple, Kezia and Chris, find out for sure that they have lost Grace, one of the twins Kezia is carrying. The doctor scans the male foetus and the sound of the heartbeat fills the room. He moves over to the smaller one and silence echoes. “I’m sorry, guys,” he says.

Obviously, there are questions automatically raised about privacy, exploitation and ethics here, but Kezia is clear, towards the end of the programme, that she wanted her story to be filmed in order to increase awareness of the prevalence of stillbirth and its particular attendant sorrow, and presumably some similar motivation can be ascribed to the other couples. The medical and counselling staff whose commentaries punctuate the stories also express the desire to have light shone on the issue, to dispel ignorance and stigma and attract funding to the area.

Quite how we arrived at a situation where stillbirth can be considered something vaguely shameful or whose funding needs special pleading is a question for another time. Instead, the programme’s remit was basically the same as for any documentary filming people dealing with unimaginable grief and pain. Namely – don’t mess it up; don’t flinch from the story; don’t slide into sentimentality; and maintain their dignity. All of which professional and moral duties were expertly and unobtrusively executed, apart, perhaps, from a tricksy, unnecessary replay of previous words from Fiona over footage of her second baby being delivered early after troubling signs on a scan are spotted, as if we needed help to appreciate the drama of the moment.

Kezia and Chris hold their funeral for Grace and we leave them happy with her memory and delighting in her twin, Joshua. Vicky and Bruce split up for a while – she drowning in grief and anger, he unable be around her pain alongside his own – but there are signs, as we watch them in counselling together and then scattering Ruby’s ashes, that they might yet make it through together. And Fiona and Niall’s second baby is born at 35 weeks. Healthy, bawling and alive. Examination reveals that the placenta had started to calcify, as it probably had with their first child. Close surveillance, a multitude of technological NHS resources and human expertise brought to bear on it saved the baby.

Worth talking about. Worth funding.


Lucy Mangan

The GuardianTramp

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