When a new baby is expected in a family, most young children will be looking forward to the birth as much as everyone else. Having to explain the death of an expected baby brother or sister is an incredibly hard thing to do. When deep in your own grief, it might feel just too much to have to start to think about what to say to a toddler or young child. If your baby died very early on in your pregnancy, other children may not be aware that a baby was on the way. However, they will be aware that something is not right and that you are behaving differently. This page explains how to answer questions from young children and suggests words to use that will help them to understand what has happened. Children have a much greater capacity to deal with the truth than most adults realise; it is the unsaid and the untruthful that they struggle with.

Why do I need to say anything, my children are very young?

Children are all individuals and each will react to what you are about to tell them in their own way, according to their age and level of understanding. Some will be upset, others will carry on as if nothing has happened, but all will be affected to some degree. An explanation will enable them to start to try to make some sense of the situation. Without this, young children may start to feel anxious and insecure, unsure of what is going on and what is the cause. What they are not told they often make up, which can cause confusion and further distress. This is when children can start to blame themselves by believing in some way they must be responsible for what has happened. 

A child may not fully understand what has happened but they will certainly have picked up on the distress around them and be very aware that things are 'not right'. A simple explanation as to why you are upset will reassure them that you are OK but feeling very sad because that it is how people are when something upsetting happens.

Children are often involved in preparations for the new baby and along with the rest of the family may have talked about things they are going to do with their new baby brother or sister. They, therefore, need to understand why this is not going to happen to help them cope with their own, and everyone else’s, feelings of disappointment. Even children who have appeared ambivalent about a new baby will still have had some expectations around being a big brother or sister.

When should I tell them?

Children are naturally curious with surprisingly good powers of observation and learn by asking questions and watching other people’s responses. If a child is asking a question, it is usually because he/she needs to hear, and is ready to hear, the answer. It may go against strong feelings of wanting to protect them, but children need to hear the news as soon as possible. The longer you leave it, the greater the likelihood that they will overhear a conversation, sense something is wrong and feel alone in their worries, or find out in some other inappropriate way.

How much should I say?

Every child is different and some will need more information than others. How much you say will be influenced by your child’s stage of development, personality and temperament. You know your child best and are therefore the best judge as to how much to say. Do not be surprised if you are repeatedly asked the same question. This is what children do to try to make some sense of what has happened.

Young children will be aware that something is not right and that those around them are behaving differently. At this age, they have a tendency to think that they might be the cause of your distress, even when nothing has been said or done to imply this. Some appropriate words to explain your upset can reassure them:

Mummy is crying because I am feeling very sad. It is what people do when someone they love dies. I loved your baby brother and wish that he had been able to live, but I still love you just as much and always will. I am very glad that I have you.

When explaining what has happened, try to use simple words appropriate for your child’s age and understanding. It is important to use the real words such as 'dead'. Euphemisms including 'lost' or 'gone to sleep' may appear kinder, but for a child can cause complication and confusion as they will take the meaning literally.

Give just enough information to deal with any questions asked

When a child is ready to hear more, they will ask another question. There is a fine line between being honest and overloading a child with information they do not want or need. The following words are only suggestions to help you answer the question, 'What happened?' Initially, this may be all you need to say:

I have some very sad news to tell you. Your little baby brother was not as strong and healthy as we thought he was and unfortunately, he has died.

Young children will not necessarily understand what being dead means.

Being dead means that he isn’t breathing, his heart has stopped and his body has stopped working. We are feeling very sad because we are going to miss him very much.

On hearing the news young children will need reassurance:

It is very unusual for this to happen but sadly it sometimes does. When you were inside mummy’s tummy you were fine.

Agree beforehand what you are going to say so that children hear the same explanation from all adults. A child’s reactions on hearing the news that their expected baby brother or sister has died will probably be the same regardless of at what stage of the pregnancy it happened. The term 'born too early' may feel easier to use than an adult word such as 'miscarriage'; it is up to you.

Siblings who visited a baby brother or sister on a neonatal ward/special care unit may have heightened awareness and more questions because of what they saw, or overheard, in the hospital.

Some children, because they are older, or are just more curious, might ask more questions. There is no timescale for this and it may be days, weeks, or months after the baby has died. The following are just suggestions to give you ideas for words that feel right for you and your child.

A possible explanation for a miscarriage

Sometimes babies are born too soon because they have not grown properly inside their Mummy’s tummy. Because they are not ready to be born and are so very tiny, they cannot live. We’re very sad because this is what happened to our baby. We don’t always know why this happens and we wish very much that it had not happened to our baby.

Words that might help you to talk to a child when a baby is stillborn

Very few babies sadly die before they are born while still inside their Mummy’s tummy.

I have some sad news to tell you. You know that we are expecting your baby brother/sister to be born in July. When mummy went to see the doctor today they took a special photograph (scan) of the baby because they thought that there might be something wrong. When they looked at the photograph (scan), they could not see his heart beating. This is because it had stopped working. Your heart needs to work to stay alive so the doctor knew that he had died inside Mummy’s tummy. This means that when he is born he will be dead. This is a very sad thing to happen and we wish very much that he was still alive.

While still in Mummy’s tummy, the baby‘s body was not growing properly. There was something wrong with the baby and this meant that he died before he was born, which is very sad.

This means that the baby will not be coming home to live with us or grow up to be big like you. We are very lucky to have you. We will still give the baby a name. Would you like to help choose one? We will say a special goodbye (have a special service a bit like a funeral) after..... is born.

Words you may wish to use with children who need more information

Sometimes babies are born with an illness, or something wrong with their body, that is so serious that they die very soon after they are born. The doctors might be able see there is something wrong on a special machine that takes a photograph of the baby before it is born. This is called a scan. Not all problems can be seen this way and sometimes no one realises that there is something wrong. This is what happened to your little brother.

Sometimes babies are born too soon. Because they are not ready to be born and are so very tiny, they cannot live. Their heart and lungs are too small to work properly. This is what happened to your baby brother.

Sadly, you got to know him for only a very short time but we will all remember him. I thought that his nose looked just like yours.

How can I help my child? 

Children need reassurance. Their sense of security may be shaken by what has happened and this can make children feel anxious. They may need extra cuddles or resort to soothing behaviours, such as thumb sucking, more than usual.

Try to keep to your usual routines as much as possible. Daily routines are probably disrupted and familiar people are likely to be behaving in unusual ways. Young children will find this unsettling and disturbing. Sticking to what you usually do will help to give a child a sense of safety and things being OK. Maintaining your usual levels of discipline will help children to feel secure.

Do tell any adults your child comes into contact with about what has happened. This will help them to understand if your child is upset or behaving out of character and be ready to respond. View our resource for more on helping a bereaved child build resilience.

Adults act as a role model so it is helpful if everyone can take the same approach. Whether at home, in day care, or at school, children need an accepting and supportive environment where they feel safe to ask questions and share feelings. If the adults around them can express their emotions, a child will know it is OK to do the same.

Encourage and help children to express how they are feeling. Very young children use play to help them understand what has happened. Messy painting or drawing can help a child who is struggling to express themselves with words. For ideas have a look at our activities for grieving children and young people.

Children of all ages enjoy books. Suggestions are given below for books to share that may help open conversations and offer reassurance.

Other families talk about their experience of baby loss.

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