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Autopsy—Information for parents

Information for parents 

There is an important question that parents will be asked to consider at this time, and that's whether or not you would like to have an autopsy performed on your baby's body. The following information has been provided to assist you with making an informed decision.

What is an autopsy?

An autopsy can be performed after death to find out as much as possible about why your baby died. It is sometimes called a ‘post-mortem examination’. The autopsy is performed by a pathologist; a medical practitioner who specialises in this field.

Why consent to an autopsy?

There are a number of reasons why you may decide to consent to an autopsy. These may depend on the age of your baby and the circumstances of their death. An autopsy may help to tell you:

  • the cause of death or what to exclude as the cause of death
  • the gestational age of your baby
  • the time of death
  • the impact of genetic and/or environmental factors to their death
  • whether the obstetric and/or paediatric care was appropriate
  • information that may have implications on the health of your other children.

There may be other reasons why an autopsy is recommended and your doctor will discuss these with you.

Where will the autopsy occur?

A perinatal pathologist (a doctor specially trained in performing an autopsy on babies), will perform this examination at Mater. You can be reassured that your baby is always treated with respect during this procedure.

What happens during an autopsy?

There are several types of autopsies, all of which require your consent: 

  1. Full autopsy—This allows the pathologist to look at possible external and internal anomalies, structural defects and organ growth. A surgical cut (or incision) is made from the top of the chest to the lower abdomen, to allow an examination of chest and abdominal organs. A small incision is also made at the back of the head so that the brain can be examined. The face, hands, feet and limbs are untouched. All incisions are closed with stitches and are not normally visible once your baby is dressed.
  2. Limited autopsy—this is an autopsy that you have placed restrictions upon. For example, you may decide to have only the abdominal organs examined (and not have incisions to the head or chest), as well as external non-invasive, placental and x-ray examinations.
  3. External autopsy only—you may decide to consent only to medical imaging and external examination of your baby’s body and placenta, and not allow any incisions. This means that the pathologist would not be able to examine any internal organs.

The level of information obtained by an autopsy depends upon how complete the examination is, and the actual cause of death. The greater the information, the better your doctor or caregiver may be able to explain to you how your baby died and if this will affect future pregnancies or the health of your other children.

However, even with a full autopsy, the cause of death may not be able to be determined.

What happens to my baby's organs?

Usually, during an autopsy in which a baby’s organs are examined it is necessary to take small tissue samples (biopsies) to examine under a microscope. However, the organs are replaced following the investigation. This part of the autopsy is called a histological analysis and will be included in the autopsy report. Some organs, such as the brain, are unable to be examined properly without ‘fixation’, which is a chemical treatment that increases the amount of information that can be found. If you give permission for fixation, the organ may be retained for up to three weeks. This may affect funeral arrangements for your baby; therefore you may either:

  • delay cremation or burial until the autopsy is complete and your baby’s body is completely restored; or
  • let the hospital take care of the organ on your behalf.


Mater Mothers’ Hospitals provide a service, where any retained organs can be collectively cremated along with the remains of babies that are miscarried. The ashes are then placed in a memorial garden at Stapylton Cemetery.

All decisions are entirely up to you; however, your doctor, pathologist, midwife or other caregiver may be able to assist in providing information and support through this process.

What can I expect after the autopsy?

It is usually possible for you to see and hold your baby after an autopsy. Some changes occur once a baby has died, such as a change in skin colour and body temperature; however, there are also some changes due to the autopsy. These changes will depend on which procedures have been had. Where internal organs have been examined, you can expect to see the presence of stitches (or sutures), which are usually under your baby’s clothing. You can request more
information about seeing and holding your baby following an autopsy from our bereavement midwives, social workers, or your funeral director. They may also be able to describe your baby’s appearance to you, or dress your baby to cover any suture lines if you prefer.

When can I expect the results from the auopsy?

After an autopsy, the pathologist writes a report that details all of their findings. Once all test results are known a final report is forwarded to your doctor. This usually occurs within six to eight weeks. Very occasionally some specialised tests may take several months to be completed.

The information in the autopsy report may assist your doctor in providing you with the cause of your baby’s death, implications for future pregnancies or the health of existing children and assist in appropriate referral to relevant professionals, such as a genetic counsellor.

Please be aware that in some instances the autopsy will not be able to explain the cause of your baby’s death.

How do I know if I am making the right decision?

There is no right or wrong decision regarding whether or not to consent to an autopsy of your baby’s body. For many parents it is a difficult and personal decision that takes into account many factors and considerations, including religious, cultural and personal beliefs.

Family and friends may offer their advice and opinions about autopsies, or be opposed to your decision. It is important to remember that although their perspective is suitable for them, the decision is yours.

Do I need to make any decisions right now?

No. You may prefer to keep this brochure and discuss the options with your doctor, our bereavement midwives or your family before making a decision. It may take time before you decide. Delaying an autopsy may result in less accurate information being obtained; however, this may not always be the case. Further information regarding timeframes can be obtained from your doctor or our midwife from the bereavement support program.

Who can I contact for further information?

For further information or support in your decision you may wish to contact:

  • Mater Mothers’ Hospitals' Bereavement Support Program: 07 3163 3467 or 07 3163 6621
  • SANDS Queensland: 1800 228 655
  • Your family doctor or obstetrician.

 

Mater acknowledges consumer consultation in the development of this patient information.
Mater Doc Num: PI-CLN-430229
Last modified 29/11/2019.
Consumers were consulted in the development of this patient information.
Last consumer engagement date: 28/2/2014
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