Infant Mortality, Past and Present

Mrs. Nellie Grant Sartoris with baby. This baby–Princess Cantacuzene–unveiled the Grant Memorial in the Mall, Wash. DC in April 1922. This baby’s daughter, “Princess Ida,” assisted her mother in the unveiling. Courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

As a person delves into family genealogy, they run a high likelihood of stumbling across instances of childhood and infant death.  Poor health, disease, questionable living conditions and limited access to medical care frequently plagued our ancestors.  Those who made it through were the lucky ones.

I have written in the past about my Great-grandmother, Sylvia Freeman Combs, who lost 4 children in 10 years.  All of the children were less than a year old, and most likely died due to starvation.  Breast milk is important, but if the mother can’t feed herself then it is not nearly as good.  Recently I read an account of a 3rd Great-grand uncle who was killed at 9 years old when a wagon overturned on him.  Periodically I think about how lucky my parents were risking it all with one kid.  That’s the geneticist in me talking.

Every generation I examine has lost at least one child.  Some through accidents, some thorough illness, some through other unknown causes.  Because I have an interest in biology and genetics, I look at these deaths from a different perspective.  Not only do I see a loss of genetic information  and diversity that was not passed on (particularly when lines die out), I also think about the opportunities they missed.  In addition, I’m able to channel the grief each of these mothers felt at the loss of a child.

In 2006, my husband and I lost a baby girl.  It was heart wrenching, and a part of me relives that anguish every time I read about a case of a baby dying.  Our daughter was a 23-week-old stillborn, and while I was never able to carry her in my arms, a loss is a loss.  Due to her size (she may have survived if born alive) the State of Indiana issued a fetal death certificate for her.  We put it away with all of our other important papers and left it alone.

As I research my family more and more, I uncover many vital records.  Birth, death and marriage certificates are important records for all genealogy research.  I entered ours, and our children’s, vital records into my software when I first started my genealogy research, but struggled with whether or not I should enter our daughter’s.  Many people didn’t know that we had lost a baby. Many people barely consider it a birth, let alone a death. And there are others who think that this is one of those family secrets that should be  kept private.  I’ve heard it all, and won’t go into my personal philosophical opinions here, but I felt the need to do something with this information.  There was documentation for goodness sake!

I decided to put her in the family tree.  If I didn’t, then one of my nosey descendants would just find her anyway, which would just lead to more questions.  Many states do this, not just Indiana.  While it is a relatively recent development, it means that there is a new paper trail for future researchers.  Check with your local vital records office to find out how your state handles a stillbirth and if they issue fetal death certificates, death certificates, or in some states, fetal birth certificates. I also wanted to put her in there because of of why she died.  My future generations need to know about my medical history and how it played a part.  Someday it could affect them and they might need to have this information.

October is not only Family History Month, but also Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Month, as dedicated by President Regan in October 1988.  Specifically, October 15 is dedicated to these lost children. The October 15th campaign started in 2002.  A petition reached the federal government to create a memorial day, and on September 28, 2006, House Concurrent Resolution 222 proclaimed this day each year as Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day in the United States.   Remember and celebrate all your ancestors this month, even the ones who were too little to be remembered by many.


Family Tree Firsts is an ongoing blog series featuring newbie genealogist Shannon Bennett of Locust Grove, Va.


Learn more about how to handle vital records in the course First Steps: Using Birth Records. Get 20% off the listed price with coupon code FTU1012.

28 thoughts on “Infant Mortality, Past and Present

  1. Thank you and I’m sorry for your loss. My son only lived for 3 hours in 2009 but he’s in my family tree, as one of my two children. I haven’t put in his birth or death certificate because I can’t bring myself to acquire them (the hospital gave us the death cert but I haven’t seen it).

    I’ve also found many child deaths among my ancestors, plus maternal deaths in childbirth. Heart-wrenching every time.

  2. Cyndi: I am so sorry for your loss. It has taken 6 years but I for the first time this year I have not had a break down in remembering her. It is tough, and only you will know if, and when, you will be able to look at those records. They will be there for you when you can.

  3. Shannon, Thank you for writing this blog. We too lost our first child @ 24 weeks. I have experienced the same emotional struggles with infant documenation in my research. Sort of a quest for me, to make sure those little lives are not forgotten. As painful as it is, history is a source of learning & improving quality of life & health.

  4. I will be putting Erin my granddaughter in our family tree. I don’t want her to be forgotton, she was part of our family

  5. Shannon, I am so sorry for your loss. I do not know the pain of losing a child but my heart goes out to all who have. My mother lost 2 children in less than 3 years. The first was 6 mos. old and died from SIDS and the second was 5 mos. old and died from status lymphaticus. They were both sons. This was back in the 40’s.

  6. Shannon, I know how difficult it must have been to write this as I gave birth to a full term son who only lived 6 days 46 years ago. This made me double check that I had scanned any papers I had about him onto my computer. (I had!) 46 years ago they didn’t have the medical knowledge that could have saved him. (About 20 years ago I read where surgery was done on a baby, in the womb, to take care of the exact cause of my son’s death.) The end of every May, beginning of June, I find myself thinking about him & wondering how he would have turned out. For years going any where near the cemetery where he is buried had me upset & in tears. I also have many ancestors who lost children and several mothers who died in childbirth. I try extremely hard to document them when records can be found.
    I am sorry for your loss but I wish to thank you for writing this.

  7. Justine: I make sure to capture thier stories too. With the birth of my first child I almost died due to HELLP Syndrome and delivered a baby 15 weeks premature. He thankfuly survived and is one of the lucky ones to only have a mild physical handicap from lack of oxygen. Sometimes I find myself thinking about other women in my family who didn’t make it and how lucky I am. Our history, and thiers, is why we are who we are today and needs to be preserved in the families.

    I wrote more on my personal blog: http://tntfamilyhistory.blogspot.com/2012/10/next-ftf-post-is-up-death-in-family.html

  8. My brother only lived 4 hours in 1946, but he is in my family tree. I am also of the opinion that the COD could be important to someone else in the family.

    I am sorry for those of you who have lost children. We have been so blessed that our 3 children, 5 grands and 2 great grands are all healthy. I can’t imagine losing one.

  9. Dear Shannon, I would also like to offer my heartfelt sorrow over the loss of your precious one. Also to the rest of you out there who have suffered the same losses. I had a grandson born in December of 2009 and he only lived for 5 minutes due to genetic complications….trisomy 13. I too document every child that I can find in my family. I want them to not be forgotten. I also find myself drawn to the children sections of cemeteries looking for young infants and then finding out who they are and who their famly was. A lot of time they are burried alone with no other family in the cemetery. A reminder of a stop enroute to a new home.

  10. Shannon,
    So sorry for your loss. Nice to have documentation. How long has Indiana been issuing fetal death certificates ? I’m a Hoosier with Indiana ancestors. My husband too. Would like to have info on some of the lost babies in our families. Vague statements, but no specific data turns up. I don’t recall any papers, when I miscarried 44 years ago, and expect this is something fairly recent. Thanks for sharing.

  11. I too am sorry for the loss of all children, I never lost one of my own but have family member who have. I never gave it a thought not to place a record even if none exist by the state
    they were carried by the mother, she loves that fetus or infant how can I do any less.

  12. Shannon, my sympathy to you in your loss. I, too, lost a baby weeks before her due date. She was anencephalic and had I was told that she would probably be born dead or would die shortly after birth. It was such a hard time and no one knew what to say or do. Our 5 older children were 10 to 2 years and understood very little, so there were questions since they had been told of the impending birth or a new brother or sister.
    We were military and a long way from home, so we decided on cremation so that she could be buried when we returned home. That hasn’t happened. The urn has quietly moved with us (from closet to closet). I just wasn’t prepared to go through that public pain, I guess, don’t know. Now my will stipulates that she will be buried with me when I pass on.
    Recently I had the Big Family Bible out that has the family records and my grandson saw her name and asked about that name and so we talked about her.
    Now I have to say that I have always told my children as they got older and were starting to plan their families. I felt that they needed to know that this “COULD” happen to them and they should make their doctors aware of the possibility.
    It has been hard and it was terribly hard those days after her birth and death, but eventually my darling children pulled me out of my grief that they did not understand, with their love and hugs and kisses. She would have been a much loved little girl by her siblings and Mom and Dad but we also know she has watched over us from Heaven since that day.
    As I do my family research, I find that my great-grandmother had a stillborn child in 1857 and lost a three year old. Another line’s grandmother lost a baby and a toddler as well. No story, one was named but the others weren’t. As other ladies mentioned, my heart broke for them because I had felt the grief that they felt.
    Our youngest daughter is on our family tree. She raises questions but she was part of our lives even though she never got to LIVE in the world with us and was made us the way we are.
    Shannon, thank you for your blog. This is part of our lives and part of the family history. And maybe it is a healing for those of us who read it.
    God Bless.
    J

  13. WE TOO LOST A BABY WHO LIVED ONLY 16 HOURS IN 1947. I NEVER GOT TO HOLD HIM IN MY ARMS. HIS LUNGS WERE UNDERDEVELOPED, AND AT THAT TIME THERE WAS NO WAY TO KEEP HIM ALIVE UNTIL HE COULD BREATHE ON HIS OWN. I SING “HAPPY BIRTHDAY” TO HIM EVERY MAY 3RD.

  14. Shannon, I am so very sorry for your loss. It matters not how old a child is or even how far along in pregnancy it was when they died, they are all beloved children and need to be remembered. I think back to when we lost our first son – he was born having had a viral infection attack his brain in utero at the end of the pregnancy and without our knowledge prior to delivery (a rare occurrence we were told). By the time the doctors realized he was in distress, the damage had already been done as the delivery caused seizures and decimated his brain. Miraculously, he lived 3-1/2 weeks with only his brain stem and I got to do all those ritual things mothers do for their children to care for them. It was a God send and a time I will never forget. He was a big boy and looked perfectly “normal”, but would never have any kind of life. God graciously took him home after my time with him. It was very devastating, but with time and a second son to come our way about 18 months later, we got on with the business of life. I became a scrapbooker and family historian after my second son was born, but I still have not had the courage to scrapbook the few photos and mementos we have of our darling first boy. I wanted to add him and the third boy we lost to miscarriage on our family tree, but my husband and others think the third boy should be left off because he wasn’t “born”. They all agree that our firstborn son should be included because he lived, even if for such a short time. I secretly named our third boy and am planning on adding him to the family tree, despite what others say or think. He had down’s syndrome (I am an older mother) and plan to include that in his records. We have no documentation of his existence or death from our state (NJ), but I know he was alive inside me for 11-1/2 weeks and know he should be remembered. Thank you for your blog as it is a healing place for many of us who have walked those dark abysmal steps back into the world after the death of a child.

  15. Thank you all for sharing with me, and others, your stories. It is an unfortunate bond we all share, and equally unfortunate that we have all had to experince a loss to some degree. We are our families memory keepers, I know I will keep hers, and you thiers.

  16. Thank you so much for shareing all this information but especially about your daughter. My daughter lost her first child in the first trimester 20 years ago and still remembers the life she carried even though for a short time. I’m glad you added her to your tree, it is important to remember her and to provide information for the future generations!!!

  17. Mimi: Fetal death certificates are a fairly new occurance. I also know that they have been issed since the 1990’s but will need to do more research to get you a good answer.

    The CDC has a phamplet online with state by state definitions of fetal death and how the states act on it.
    http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/misc/itop97.pdf

  18. Dear Shannon,
    Thank you for sharing with each of us, your loss,and the memories that you carry in your heart. I feel that we need to remember the children that we lost, I lost two,and my grandmother lost her first born son, he would have been my father’s only brother. After years of searching, I finally located his burial place, and I had my 4 year old son with me. When I explained who he was, and that he only lived one day, and that his mommy was the ” grandma what gots no poppa” as he called her, he replied ” she must have cried and cried and cried” . The gentleman from the cemetery was moved to tears by the understanding of a child.

    My grandfather was an only child because his sister was born and died before he was born, I have yet to find her final resting place, but will not give up hope of finding her too.

    My great grandmother lost three sisters as toddlers,and worked very hard to find the only surviving pictures of each of them, so I have added them to our family tree so that they will always be with us.

    And finally, my greatest heartbreak was the story of my third great grand Uncle, Rev. Michael Long. I did not know her name, but her story touched me so much that I had to add her, I have since met a family member that knew her beautiful name, Elizabeth Isamiah Long, Here is her story:
    In L. Lillian Wise’s “A History of Jackson Township, Sandusky County Ohio”, page 54, she relates this story:

    ” It is in connection with Michael Long and his wife that the first grave was made in Smith Cemetery. Their first child, a girl, not many months old, died and there must be a burial place …… The rains had made travel well nigh impossible so a small group of men with Michael Long riding ahead on horseback with the small coffin cradled in his arms made the sad journey to the resting place. The small child is buried in the Southeast part of the cemetery with a soldier resting on either side … in not far from the road.

    I can pictue the stoic father, astride his horse, with his traveling hat, and overcoat the only things to protect him and his daughter from the rain… I vividly picture this sad procession.

    I love the poem by E. E. Cummings, it best describes our feelings about not only genealogy, but the loss of those we loved and lost, and hold so dear:

    i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
    my heart)i am never without it …….

    I carry my children and my ancestors in my heart ,and I am who I am because I was touched by each of them… I carry them in my heart ….

  19. Thank you for the inspirational article and reminder. As a keeper of my family’s memories and histories, I have added those in my histories, those who have passed away, born and unborn. They were part of someone’s life, our lives, and our families. Those babies and youth who were missed and loved deserve to be remembered. A story told to me of a grandparent driving a mule and buggy was hit by a storm; his little girl got sick and died. My Mother talked of losing an unnamed stillborn baby girl, but remarked how she missed that little life over 60 years ago. We have lost small lives in our families and will never forget, and always love in a pocket of our mind and heart.

  20. I always include the babies in the family tree–if I can find them. I found it very interesting when I got a copy of my gr. gr. grandfather’s obit and found that of his and my gr.gr. grandmothers marriage there were born 12 children. I only knew of 6, two of which died in childhood and who I had in my tree. Where the other 6 came in I have no idea. and can’t find any other clues. The family bible doesn’t talk of them either, so I can only assume they were miscarriages or stillbirths. As this would have been between 1854 and 1871 records are few. But I have most of the children through the years that died of disease or accident. And the picture (tintype) of one stillborn child in its coffin. I keep searching. My father was an only child due to a stillborn sister that resulted in hysterectomy for my grandmother. And my mother and her sister (13 years apart in age) were the only survivers of their sibling group. None of the boys made it past 3 months of age. Unfortunately these stories are quite common in geneology, but they sure do give a clearer appreciation for what our ancestors lives were like. This is why I include them, and tell my grandchildren about them along with the others.

  21. Just a note that might help someone. Both my great-grandparents lost several babies in a period of a few years. I asked my grandmother what they died of. She said “summer complaint.” The definition of “summer complaint” is acute diarrhea occurring in the hot summer months chiefly in infants and children, caused by bacterial contamination of food and associated with poor hygiene. I asked her more questions and she said that they had no refrigeration. Sometimes they had a spring house and/or a root celler. Sometimes food, including milk, was kept on the windowsill. I hope not in the summer, but I don’t know. This was 1887 through 1905 New York City.

  22. This Blog is a wonderful contribution, and for this alone I wanted to add my comments and thank you, Shannon Bennett.

    I only began my personal geneology search in June of 2012; so much of the information I am now gathering is a true blessing.

    I am an adopted individual,born in 1938, who just this year, due to legal changes in court documentation, was allowed to petition my state of birth, for my original birth certificate. Those records up until now, had been “sealed”. (Since my birth parents are both deceased, I decided to pursue any & all information possible; Re: my birth family and medical information.) It is something my children have wanted, for their knowledge and comfort, for many years.

    Until this year, I have known nothing of my personal, or medical history. It is like a dark corner of an unexplored place in my heart, that has finally been exposed to the light.

    In my findings, were congenital heart defects, that have effected almost every generation.
    So much is understood, today, that was unknown in the last century;….so many pieces of medical and historical data that was not noted that could have been…I hope that the younger generations of women, that follow will recognize the importance of these necessities and record as much as possible.
    Awareness is the key to a better future for all of us.

  23. Shannon,

    My heart just breaks for these little ones who leave us and this earth way too soon.

    The most grievous testimony of this is my deceased husband’s great-grandparents. Imagine my shock and horror when I kept finding the birth and death records of children with Jacob and Louisa as the parents. The 1900 census told the story: 15 children born – only 4 living. I just cannot understand how she/they could not be consumed with grief! The death causes were often the current disease going around such as flu and diphtheria, but childhood stuff like croup was listed also. They lost TWO sets of twins! I lost a daughter 16 years ago when she was 27. At least I got to hold and love her for 27 years. Now, – I just try to think of the good times and how wonderful a person she was. Once we carry a child, no matter the age at which that child is lost, that memory is there! and I feel that child will always be a part of us.The grief eases, but the memories remain.

  24. Sorry to hear about everyone’s loss. I know it must be heart wrenching to lose a child. My mother told me that she had a miscarriage very early in her pregnancy when I was 5 years old (in 1972). I struggled with the decision whether or not to include this unborn sibling in my family tree as I have naturally always considered myself an only child (I have no other siblings) and naturally no records would exist for this child. Also, as it turns out, no one else in my family knew this. My 1st cousins whom I am very close to never even knew about my mother’s miscarriage and were surprised when I told them recently. Eventually, I decided to put my unborn sibling on the tree because as a Christian I believe that they are in Heaven now, waiting to meet me someday. I do think of my sibling from time to time and wonder what they are like and how they would have impacted my life had they been born.

  25. Thank you again to everyone who has shared their stories, grief, insights, and discoveries. As historians, researchers, and genealogists we realize more than other at times that these people were just like us. No matter how long ago, they grieved in the same ways we grieve now. How could they not.

    I hope that your families can appreciate what you are doing too. Write their stories and remember all your family.

  26. My heart is so touched by the stories and comments that have been shared by so many. I feel an urgent need to go back and seek the unborn babies or those that have been lost in my family’s history. My prayers are with all who have lost a precious child. Thank you so much for your sharing with us.

  27. I am very touched by the losses of children in these posts. I have 3 siblings in heaven. Mom miscarried them in her first trimester. I have yet to put them into my family tree, but will do so. They are a part of my family’s history and they had an impact on our dynamics, and so deserve a place on the tree.
    For those who have lost a young child, my friend Nancy Ferrin wrote a book “Where Is My Baby? …
    A Mother’s Message of Hope and Healing” about the death of her infant son. It is full of healing and compassion.
    Thanks all for sharing your tender and painful memories. May God grant you comfort and peace.

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