Every year across the United States, several hundred infants are killed in their first 24 hours of life — an act known as neonaticide that is as shocking as it is, thankfully, rare. A high-profile case of neonaticide in Maine concluded earlier this month with the sentencing of the mother to nine years in prison. But while incarceration may satisfy calls for retribution, preventing neonaticide demands that we reach out to women at risk.

Kayla Stewart, who pleaded guilty Jan. 4 to manslaughter, gave birth in December 2015, at the Fairfield home she shared with her boyfriend, Nicholas Blood. According to prosecutors, Stewart, then 20, either smothered or suffocated the healthy, full-term boy. Her defense attorney argued that Stewart believed the child was stillborn and wrapped him up and put him behind an oil tank in the garage.

Stewart’s experience fits a pattern that Michelle Oberman, a law professor who has studied neonaticide, recently described to the Morning Sentinel’s Colin Ellis: isolation and denial. Stewart and Blood, then 25, already had a 3-year-old and both worked. They didn’t see much of each other, her attorney said, and Stewart wasn’t close to her adoptive mother.

Asked by her mother whether she was pregnant, Stewart initially denied it, according to a probable-cause affidavit; later, in either late November or early December, she called her mother and said she’d been seen by a doctor after a fall at work and had been told that her fetus was just a few months old and had no heartbeat. Neither of these were true. Stewart’s attorney said her client was convinced the baby was dead because she “smoked and did drugs” during the pregnancy.

What is clear is that Stewart had no plan for giving birth and that, like most women who deliver a child unexpectedly, she was in no condition to take proactive steps — like getting cleaned up, getting dressed and dropping off the child at a “safe haven,” like an ER or a doctor’s office.

Keeping newborns from being killed calls for making connections. Ideally, teenagers — one of the groups most at risk for pregnancy denial and infanticide – should have access to evidence-based sex education and contraception. If they don’t use birth control, or if it fails, they need a caring, nonjudgmental confidante who’s willing to ask questions, even if it makes for an uncomfortable conversation. And the existence of “safe haven” laws can help by alerting friends, relatives and sexual partners to the possibility that someone they know might be concealing a pregnancy.

A child died just as his life was getting started. Sadly, nothing will bring him back — but if we want to prevent similar tragedies, intervention should take place far before the labor pains start.

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