October has served as Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month since 1988. The national campaign brings awareness to child loss and seeks to support parents who have lost their babies to stillbirth, miscarriage, SIDs, and other medical complications.
In a recent episode of “An Army of Normal Folks” podcast host Bill Courtney sat down with Gina Harris to discuss nonprofit Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep. The organization uses a global network of 1,700 volunteer photographers to provide free photo sessions with families at times of astounding grief.
“They provide remembrance portraits for parents experiencing the death of a baby,” Harris told Courtney. “There’s photographers who volunteer their time and go into hospitals to capture the only moments parents spend with their babies.”
Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep was founded in 2005 by Cheryl Haggard after the death of her infant son Maddux. When her six-day-old son passed away from myotubular myopathy, Haggard tried to take pictures of her son on her personal camera.
“I saw our tear stained cheeks, our red swollen eyes, our forced smiles, and the fear in our faces as we looked into the camera,” Haggard said. “The color images bring back the reality of that day.”
Haggard’s husband then called on a professional photographer to come take a black-and-white photo session of their child. From there, Haggard understood the importance of creating lasting memories for parents in similar circumstances and created Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep.
“That night was the worst night of my life,” Haggard said in a video about the organization’s history. “But when I look at the images, I am not reminded of my worst night. I’m reminded of the beauty and blessings he brought.”
Two years later, Harris and her husband were warned that there were complications with their son’s birth and she was given the heart-wrenching decision to carry their child to term or terminate early.
At the time, a close friend suggested that Harris look into Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep.
“At first I thought, why would you do that?” Harris recalled in her interview with Courtney. “But I went to the website and saw these gorgeous photographs and I thought, I should at least get it done. I don’t have to look at them, but this will be my only opportunity.”
When Harris’ son David arrived stillborn in 2007, Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep provided her and her family with a free family portrait and remembrance session.
“[The photographs] were, and still are, the best gift we could have been given,” Harris said. “They are treasured.”
After her experience, Harris realized that she was less alone than she realized. She began working for the non-profit organization and eventually became their Chief Executive Officer.
Although Harris’ story is remarkable, it is only one snapshot into a larger community of individuals who have suffered from infant loss.
Women of color are disproportionately affected by infant loss.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Women of Black, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander descent are twice as likely to have stillborn infants as non-Hispanic white women.
“A lower quality of maternal health care, socioeconomic factors, and structural racism in healthcare closely tie to racial disparities in maternal and infant deaths,” reported National Institutes of Health writer Leona Bedrossian.
Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month presents an opportunity for community networks to increase accessible prenatal care across the country and reduce infant and maternal mortality rates.
In 2020, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development launched the IMPROVE initiative (Implementing a Maternal Health and Pregnancy Outcomes Vision for Everyone) to raise funds for specialized maternal care and eliminate disparities in healthcare access.
“IMPROVE will provide a diverse range of new research opportunities,” said Janine A. Clayton, M.D., the NIH Associate Director for Research on Women’s Health. “Whether you’re studying fundamental science, leading clinical studies, conducting population research, or developing new technologies, there is an opportunity to help women and families across the country.”
Infant mortality rates are hard to track.
According to UNICEF, 1.9 million babies were recorded as stillborn in 2021, and those numbers may only reflect a portion of real-life data.
The World Health Organization estimated that half of all newborn deaths and nearly all stillborn babies are never given a birth or death certificate and therefore never get “registered, reported or investigated by the health system.”
“Having those photographers doesn’t document death, it captures love,” Harris explained to Courtney. “It documents David’s existence, that he existed. He was stillborn, he never received a birth certificate. But he existed. He lived inside of me.”
The grief families go through every day is immeasurable. But organizations like Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep and their network of volunteer photographers are providing a new way for parents to honor their infants.
“For the parents who lose a baby, whether they’re stillborn or they die shortly after birth, a lot of times people don’t fully understand the magnitude,” Harris expressed. “But these photographs absolutely show, this baby was real, this baby was mine.”
Header image courtesy of Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep