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Photographer provides special mementoes to help grieving families

Jane Poynter takes portraits of babies who have died at the hospital.

Jane Poynter takes portraits of babies who have died at the hospital. Photo: Jason South

The creamy woollen beanie is as big as an eggshell.

If you held up three fingers it would just stretch over their tips.

Laid alongside it in a cupboard are tiny clothes, pearl-pink blankets, booties and bassinet sheets, meticulously crafted by volunteers for the Royal Women's Hospital.

Photographer Jane Poynter selects blankets, felt dolls and a plush teddy and arranges them inside a frothy bassinet, which stands in the centre of this nondescript room deep inside the hospital. She often uses a macro lens to capture her diminutive subjects: it shows their sequin-sized nails, the wisps of their hair, the whorls of their ears.

It is Poynter's job to take pictures of babies who have died at the hospital, to provide a tangible keepsake for grief-stricken parents who bathe, hold or weep over their child in the hours after they have passed away.

This process is one part of the hospital's unique Reproductive Loss Service, which brings together social workers, paediatricians, nurses, midwives and genetic counsellors to help families find a way to remember their child and deal with harrowing practicalities, such as funeral arrangements.

Some of these babies are tiny - just 15 weeks old - while others are full term.

The causes of death include miscarriage, stillbirth, neo-natal death and infant death.

Everyone reacts differently, but most are in shock when Poynter meets them. ''I just encourage them to do as much as they can, whatever they feel able to,'' she says.

An experienced freelance photographer, Poynter lives in the inner city and is able to get to the hospital at short notice. Sometimes the baby's extended family will be in the room, sometimes the parents find it too difficult to witness, so a staff member from anatomical pathology assists Poynter with her work.

Discretion is key. Most parents are so shocked they don't really notice her as she captures their final moments with their children, but many contact her afterwards to tell her how much it meant.

''Thanks for taking the time to capture the shots of our baby, it meant so much,'' says one email.

Reproductive Loss Service co-ordinator Sharon Kirsopp says the service can also help parents access specialist services such as counselling or genetic counselling.

As well as photographs, parents can request a memory folder, which might note the weight and length of the child, and hold its wristband, cord clamp or a lock of hair.

Parents are often surprised, even horrified, to be discussing options like photography, Kirsopp says. But once the baby is born many are grateful for the option.

Not all want to see their baby's photographs straight away - Kirsopp was recently approached by a woman who lost a baby 23 years ago and finally wanted to see the photographs kept at the hospital. Kirsopp went to her filing cabinet and there was the photo, safe inside an envelope that had never been opened.

Families treasure this memorabilia because the time with their babies is very short, she says.

''Their life with that baby might only be minutes or hours, so this provides evidence that their baby was loved, was real, but is no longer here.''

To begin with Jane Poynter found the work at the Women's very emotional, but has adjusted to its rhythm and finds it deeply satisfying.

''I have a monthly chat and debrief with Sharon [Kirsopp] and then I visit my friends with young children and give them a cuddle.''

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