coping with unexpected news

Pregnancy is often a time of anticipation and joy, but it can sometimes bring unexpected news of a fetal anomaly. Coping with such news can be challenging, but it is important to remember that you are not alone.

In the time that follows unexpected news, many parents describe an emotional rollercoaster. Some parents cry, talk and take turns falling apart. Some parents dive into finding as much information as they can in the hope of understanding what it all means. Some parents withdraw and keep to themselves while trying to process the information. Some parents feel an instant protectiveness toward their baby and are ready to do all that comes.

Unexpected news can be traumatic, and this can be why some people don’t always remember the details of what medical professionals say the moment they receive unexpected news. While others have vivid memories of being in the room when they received the news or replaying the phrase used by the professional over and over in their minds.

We share tips to guide and support individuals and families who are navigating unexpected news of a prenatal diagnosis during pregnancy.


There is no right or wrong way to respond to a prenatal diagnosis

Some mothers have described a “shutdown” response to the initial news, where they feel like they can’t process the news, can’t think of questions and at times, can’t even move. This can be part of the normal fight or flight response we can have when something threatens what we know and expect. A prenatal diagnosis may immediately bring questions about whether your baby will live and what your future will look like and hence threatens what is known and expected.

Some mothers describe feeling alert and worried but without a shutdown experience.

Many fathers describe feeling like they had to be strong, to step in and protect their partner.

For some parents, the news may not be unexpected or may not be challenging.

There is no right or wrong immediate response. If you have received a prenatal diagnosis, you may be trying to process new information and what this looks like for you, your pregnancy and your future.

Know your coping style

Are you someone who tends to pull away from others when you’re stressed so you can process things on your own? If so, you could let people know you need a little bit of space, but you’d also appreciate them checking in on you from time to time.

Are you someone that needs to talk it over frequently to help you process it all? Then let the people you care about know you may need extra support right now.

You may see yourself in both styles, someone who needs time alone to process but also likes to talk it through with others. You may feel so overwhelmed you don’t know what you need, and that’s okay, too.

Having a balance between individual processing and staying connected with your loved ones can help you cope with unexpected news at your own pace.


Be aware of your processing style

If you’re familiar with the way you cope with new information, then you can let people know what you need.

Are you someone that likes to know a lot of information, so you learn about all the possibilities and options? Then speak to professionals, and other people you trust or reach out to support groups. You can say, “Please be patient with me as I will have a lot of questions about this so that I can understand what is happening.

If you’re someone who feels overwhelmed by too much information, then it may be helpful to avoid online searches and exposing yourself to too much information. Conflicting information received by medical professionals and online forums can be confusing and scary. You can say, “All this information is too much for me right now, I need some time to process it and then I may have some questions.”


Do what regulates you

What do you usually do to relax when you’re feeling stressed?  Think of the healthy coping strategies that make you feel calm and emotionally regulated. It may be a spiritual or religious connection, connecting with people who are experiencing something similar, going for a walk on a sunny day or taking a warm bubble bath.

Some people need to slow down and take on fewer responsibilities, others need to keep busy. There is no right or wrong way to do this, just do what helps you feel regulated.

It’s okay to avoid the pain and distress sometimes, you don’t always have to be actively doing something. It can be okay and healthy to switch off and focus on something else for a little while.


Be empowered

One of the most disempowering aspects of receiving unexpected news is the uncertainty. Often further testing is offered and even if you do receive a certain diagnosis, there still may be lots of uncertainty about what that will look like for your pregnancy or your baby.

When you focus on what you can control, such as your daily routine, it will help you feel a sense of predictability and safety. Prioritise your mental and physical health by getting enough rest, eating regular meals (set timers if you tend to forget), and engage in regular physical movement.

Write down questions you may have for medical appointments so that you are less likely to forget them if you feel overwhelmed. You may wish to have a support person with you to help you feel safe and contained, and if you don’t have someone who can attend appointments with you, ask for a hospital-based support person like a social worker.

Stress, anxiety and trauma can be complex to move forward with. However, this experience can also lead you to examine different aspects of your life and change you as a person in a positive way. There is something called post-traumatic growth. We see this occur in people who have moved through very challenging experiences and have identified strengths and silver linings of hard times.


Build a supportive network

Connecting with others who have faced similar situations during pregnancy can provide an immense sense of comfort and reassurance. You are more likely to accept and understand your situation when you can relate to others and feel less alone. Seek support groups, both online and in-person, where you can share your experiences, learn from others, and find a supportive community.


Know when to seek professional help

This is a legitimate experience that you may need support for.

The stress, anxiety or trauma you may experience upon receiving unexpected news isn’t a single event that you can process and expect to move on from. There may be follow-up appointments, milestones that bring up mixed feelings and decisions to be made. Some people find just re-entering a hospital distressing and may associate it with their grief and trauma. There may be days when you feel you cope better than others.

If you’re experiencing any of the following, then we encourage you to reach out for professional help:

  • Feeling overwhelmed by day-to-day activities
  • Increased anxiety or panic attacks
  • Feeling low in mood
  • Feeling disconnected from your body, your baby or loved ones.
  • Sleep disruptions e.g., nightmares, flashbacks
  • Thoughts of self-harm or suicide

Even if you feel you are coping okay with the unexpected news, having a safe, non-judgmental space to explore your feelings and learn new coping strategies can help.

You can find professional or peer support through our directory of Patient Support Organisations and our page on Mental Health and Wellbeing Supports.

Final thoughts

Receiving unexpected news during pregnancy can be overwhelming, but with the right support, understanding, and self-care, it is possible to navigate this challenging journey, make informed decisions, and find hope for the future.

Our resources were collaboratively written by professionals and parents with lived experience of receiving a prenatal diagnosis. To learn more about the team behind this resource, please view:

Contributors Bios
Lauren Keegan
    Julia D'Orazio
      Pieta Shakes

        These resources are provided for information purposes only and should be read in accordance with the Resource Library disclaimer.

        If you or a loved one need support, speak to your care providers or see our Mental Health and Wellbeing page for contact information for urgent and/or ongoing support. 

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