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Making Meaning from the Loss of a Child

Research by Penn Nursing’s Diane L. Spatz, PhD, RN-BC, FAAN, Professor of Perinatal Nursing and the Helen M. Shearer Term Professor of Nutrition in the Department of Family and Community Health, and colleagues reveals how donating milk served as an important part of the grieving process for some parents who had lost a baby before or at birth.

In the second trimester of pregnancy, the breasts begin secreting milk. Even if a baby dies at birth or is stillborn, milk production will still automatically ramp up following delivery.

In cases such as this, many parents are advised to suppress milk production. However, in a new study conducted through the Human Milk Banking Association of North America, or HMBANA, researchers found that some parents who experienced a loss wanted to pump and store their milk explicitly to donate it. These parents reported that milk donation was an important and meaningful component of their grieving.

“For some families, expressing milk is a huge part of the grieving process, a huge part of giving meaning to their child’s life,” says the study’s senior author, Diane Spatz of Penn’s School of Nursing and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP). “It’s such a neglected topic but such an important one.”

Spatz says the study’s findings, published in the journal Breastfeeding Medicine, underscore the importance of investing in services that support families in making and carrying out decisions related to childbearing and breastfeeding.

“Given the concerning situation that’s playing out with the formula shortage, this space and time seems like an important one to really think about the ways that we as a society and as health care experts can really improve the care of childbearing families,” Spatz says.

This is an excerpt from a longer story which was first published in Penn Today. It was written by Katherine Unger Baillie, senior science communication officer in University Communications.