You may want to consider an autopsy or more tests for your baby if you have questions or concerns about the possible reasons for your baby’s death. Please note that getting an autopsy doesn’t always mean there will be answers about why your baby died. Information that is provided by an autopsy may help you to know more about your baby and support you in your grief as you work through your personal feelings, values and beliefs. In some cases the information from autopsy may identify problems that could change the care and monitoring of any future pregnancy. If you do decide to have an autopsy, you’ll be asked to sign a consent form.
For some families, an autopsy doesn’t feel right for them. Take time for you and your partner to think about what’s most important to you when making this decision. Your doctor can help provide more information and answer any questions you may have.
What is an Autopsy?
An autopsy is a surgical examination after death done by a doctor who specializes in finding the cause of death (a pathologist). You can ask for a “complete” or “limited” examination of your baby. You decide if you want an autopsy done.
In a limited autopsy, you can choose what should be examined. For example, you can ask that only the outside of the body is looked at (external examination). This usually includes pictures and x-rays of the body. You can also ask that any inside examination be limited to the chest or abdomen (tummy), or only limited to specific organs like heart and lungs. Another choice is to limit the examination to taking only small samples (biopsies) of skin or tissue from internal organs. This option is recommended if you don’t feel you want a complete autopsy.
A complete examination includes a closer look of the body from both the outside (external) and inside (internal). To do the internal examination the pathologist opens the body through a long incision (cut). The organs and tissues can be taken out and looked at more closely and tests done if needed. The brain is also taken out through an incision on the back of the head and examined in detail. Autopsy incisions are made along the tummy and at the back of head. These incisions are carefully stitched closed and won’t be seen when your baby is dressed.
An initial report is usually ready within 1 to 2 weeks. A complete report can take months. Let your health provider know if you’d like your family doctor or midwife to get a copy of this report so they can review the information with you.
The decision to have an autopsy done can be a very difficult one particularly if it doesn’t answer your questions. Talking to a social worker, a spiritual care staff, or a spiritual leader may help you decide what the best decision for you is at this time.
If you do choose an autopsy, your baby will be carefully stitched, dressed, and wrapped when it is finished. You’ll be able to hold your baby again if you choose to.