When you become pregnant, your first instinct may be to share the joyous news with your friends and family. And if you already have children, you’re probably excited to share the news that your kids will become big brothers or sisters. However, if the pregnancy takes a tragic turn and you suffer a miscarriage, you might wonder about the best way to share this with your kids.
With the guidance of Psychologist Dr. Robin Hornstein, we will discuss whether it is wise to wait to tell your children you are pregnant, how to talk to children about miscarriage, and how you can help your child if they are struggling with the idea of losing a sibling.
Should you wait to tell your children you’re pregnant?
It’s best to look at your children’s developmental readiness for excitement and loss. Additionally, look at how they conceptualize when and how a baby comes and what a loss would mean, explained Dr. Hornstein.
“Many people wait the full 10-12 weeks, or after screening is done, to tell the littles as they don’t have the same concept of time as older kids,” said Dr. Hornstein. On the other hand, kids will pick up if their parents are upset, so parents should plan how they want to address those feelings with their children. “Kids listen when we don’t know it, so if you are not sharing the details, make sure they are out of earshot when you talk,” said Dr. Hornstein.
As for older kids who have a better notion of time, loss, and possible siblings, you can tell them when you feel it is best. Then, they can be part of the family story if a miscarriage occurs. They will feel part of the family if they know.
Telling your children you had a miscarriage
Dr. Hornstein said it is best to explain in honest terms that encompass the physical and emotional losses of a miscarriage.
Does age matter? Yes.
“If a child knows and is young, liken it to something they can understand, such as a loss they can relate to,” said Dr. Hornstein. “I also like allowing questions to unfurl as is age appropriate. They may not react immediately and use other supports if they are older, such as friends or internet searches for information, to process their feelings. One mom I worked with told me her 4-year-old had no reaction but then went to preschool and played it out in a family corner, taking the doll away from herself and pretending it had died. This is a great example of how kids process and how key it is to notice their reactions, wherever they occur.”
Autumn Knapp suffered a miscarriage three years ago when her children were 12, 11, 7, 6, and 3 years old. “We told them I was pregnant basically as soon as I found out. Then, I lost the pregnancy at around 9 weeks,” she said.
For her youngest children, she told them the baby died in her tummy and that it was in heaven now. “We told them they would be able to meet their brother or sister someday when they go to heaven,” said Knapp. “For the older kids, we just told them exactly what happened and said that sometimes babies die in their mom’s wombs. Each kid took it differently, according to age and personality. My oldest (12 at the time) is on the autism spectrum, so it was all matter of fact for him. But my younger son (11 at the time) is very sensitive and loves babies. He was really happy about having another baby in the family, so he probably took it the hardest.”
Helping a child accept the loss of a (potential) sibling
“I am very much in the belief that loss is loss, and they may need to do something to commemorate the loss of the potential of a sibling,” said Dr. Hornstein. “Little kids can make a picture of what they wanted to do with their new sibling … and maybe you hang that up, or you let it go depending on how they feel.”
Older kids may feel worried they did something to cause the miscarriage, such as having an argument with their parent. Dr. Hornstein said it’s important to clarify that a miscarriage is normal for many. It can happen for all sorts of reasons, and it’s not anyone’s fault. This clarification can reduce an unspoken concern your child may have.
“Some children may even be confused that they feel mad at you for not giving them the sibling they wanted. Normalize that feeling, as well,” Dr. Hornstein said. Additionally, she said older girls might feel concerned for themselves, wondering if it could happen to them in the future. She suggested sharing, “So many women have miscarriages they don’t even know about and go on to get pregnant again or that their very existence shows that babies can happen. If you are older and had a miscarriage, you can also let them know if you will or won’t try again, but that decision is not usually clear right away.”
Tania Rivera has also suffered from two miscarriages. She told her daughter both times. But later, she wondered if she’d made the right decision. After her first miscarriage, she broke the news before bedtime. Rivera said, “After we had done our prayers, I laid down with her on her bed and told her that the baby had gone back to heaven. Naturally, she asked why, and I said because it was her time to go. When God calls you, you must go. It’s not always fair, but that’s just how life is.”
After Rivera’s second miscarriage, her daughter asked her if God was going to call her too. “I told her not for a long time. Then one day, a few months later, my daughter said she couldn’t wait to get to heaven to be an angel like her baby brothers and sisters. In hindsight, maybe I shouldn’t have told her. But it was so hard to keep it from her since I was undergoing fertility treatments,” Rivera said.
On the day Ymara Couwnberg went in for an extra check-up, due to loss of fetal movement, she took her daughter with her. Her daughter was barely 2 ½ years old at the time. “We were heading for a picnic. She was excited because she normally associates this doctor’s office with seeing her baby sister move on the screen. In that initial moment, it was all very overwhelming for [her daughter] Nua. She saw her parents cry and be sad. We just explained to her that mom and dad are sad. We didn’t feel the need to explain why just yet. One day later, we told her that her sister had passed away … I had to be induced. We told her I had to go to the hospital because her sister was being born.”
Esha was born a day later. “We swaddled Esha, our stillborn daughter, and we introduced our eldest to her. We explained to her that she passed away and is with her grandpa in heaven. We told her this was her sister and that she left her a little gift (a stuffed animal). Nua admired her, said she had a lot of hair and was very tiny.”
“We just celebrated the 100th day. Nua talks about Esha as if she is alive. She plays with her urn, and whenever we see a butterfly or a purple flower, she says it’s her sister Esha. We learned that kids, unlike adults, have very open minds. Esha can be in heaven with her grandfather, she can be in the urn or outside when we see a butterfly,” said Couwnberg.
Couwnberg said they chose to raise Nua with the knowledge that she has a sibling. That’s how they keep their daughter’s memory alive. It’s how they ward off any shame or barriers when it comes to grief and loss. Loss is a part of life and can blend in beautifully with the easier aspects of life.