Baby loss research wins ESRC Celebrating Impact Prize 2019

Professor Kate Reed from the Department of Sociology is a winner of the Outstanding Societal Impact in the ESRC Celebrating Impact Prize 2019 with colleagues Dr Elspeth Whitby and Dr Julie Ellis for their research into infant post-mortems.

Little cards and handkerchiefs on a washing line with messages written on them for lost babies.

The loss of a baby remains a taboo subject, although it’s something many parents experience. In 2016 more than 5,500 babies in the UK were recorded as stillborn or died shortly after birth.

Post-mortems can provide important information for bereaved parents about the cause of death, as well as crucial knowledge for medical research. However, consent rates among parents remain low.

Professor Kate Reed, Dr Elspeth Whitby (University of Sheffield) and Dr Julie Ellis (University of Huddersfield) explored the role of the post-mortem and minimally invasive post-mortem examinations using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI).

This award is for all those babies whose lives may have ended prematurely but will always be remembered and will never be forgotten.

Professor Kate Reed

University of Sheffield

Innovative ethnographic approach

Using an innovative ethnographic approach, the team pioneered the use of 'go-along ethnography' to follow hospital staff in their day-to-day work, combined with interviews of bereaved parents and other family members.

Their research found that hospital staff often felt inadequately trained in bereavement situations and gaining parents' consent for post-mortem examinations was problematic.

While parents felt overwhelmed by information and concerned over what would happen to their baby during a post-mortem – particularly about how invasive the examination would be.

The research revealed 'hidden' care practices that take place in the mortuary such as bathing, dressing and talking to babies were a key part of parents' experience of the post-mortem process.

These insights have been used to provide better information to parents about the post-mortem examination at Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, which now includes details of the personal care that hospital staff give to babies. As a result, take up of examinations is increasing in Sheffield.

The research team also collaborated with artists and graphic designers to create the 'Remembering Baby' exhibition which was held in London, Sheffield, Gateshead and Nottingham.

Bereavement workshops

Creative bereavement support workshops were run as part of the exhibition and are currently being adopted by NHS Trusts and national bereavement support charities across the UK.

Professor Kate Reed, Director of the Doctoral Training Programme in the Faculty of Social Sciences, said: “We're honoured to receive this award. I want to highlight the value and importance of interdisciplinary and collaborative research. I've learnt so much from working with Elspeth, who's a clinician, and engaging the social sciences with medicine and the arts and humanities.

“We want to thank the NHS staff who have been involved with this project, the ESRC for funding this sensitive research, and the Faculty of Social Sciences who have supported this project right from the beginning. I also want to thank the charities and artists that have worked with us and made this the project that it is.

“And finally and most importantly, I want to thank the parents that have been involved. We've learnt so much and it's completely changed the way I practice social science and do qualitative research. This award is for all those babies whose lives may have ended prematurely but will always be remembered and will never be forgotten.”

Professor Craig Watkins, Vice-President and Head of the Faculty of Social Sciences, said: “I am absolutely delighted that the ESRC have recognised the outstanding achievements of Professor Kate Reed and colleagues with the Impact Prize 2019. It is a fantastic example of what can be achieved when we work collaboratively and across disciplines.

“Their research has not only informed and changed practice in hospitals across the UK, but has provided a source of support and comfort for bereaved parents at an incredibly difficult time.”

The Impact Prize 2019 was presented at a ceremony at the Royal Society in London. The research team also receive £10,000 to spend on further knowledge exchange, public engagement and other impact activities.

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