Stillbirth symptoms and risks

Often there aren’t any noticeable symptoms or signs before a stillbirth. But there are some things that you should look out for during your pregnancy.

If you feel that something is wrong, or if you are worried about the baby, call your midwife or doctor to talk about it. Don't worry if you've talked about it before and don't be concerned about whether you're wasting anyone's time. This is your pregnancy and it's important to trust your own instincts if you feel something isn't right.

We understand that reading about the symptoms of stillbirth can be very worrying during pregnancy. If you are struggling to manage anxious feelings or thoughts, please talk to your midwife about how you’re feeling. Your healthcare team is there to support you if you have any concerns about your and your baby's health. Please don’t worry about speaking up, asking questions and requesting further investigations. 

Even if you do experience some of the symptoms or conditions listed below, please remember that you’re likely to go on to have a healthy pregnancy and baby. 

If you’re looking for more information about what causes stillbirth, our information about the causes of stillbirth more helpful.

Baby’s movements in pregnancy

You may feel your baby move as early as 16 weeks of pregnancy, but most people usually feel something between 16 and 20 weeks, although it can sometimes be later than this.

If this is your first pregnancy, you may not notice your baby’s movements until you are more than 20 weeks pregnant. Movements feel different to everyone, but you might feel kicking, swirling, fluttering or rolling. It is not true that babies move less towards the end of pregnancy. You should continue to feel your baby move right up to the time you go into labour and during labour.  

Every baby has its own pattern of movement – for example your baby may move more in the evenings when you are resting, or before you go to sleep at night. You may also find certain activities like taking a bath, putting your feet up and resting on the sofa, or eating and drinking seem to encourage your baby to move more.

As the weeks go on, you may notice a pattern of movements that becomes familiar to you. The movements usually become fairly regular by 28 weeks. Get to know your baby’s pattern of movements so you can notice any changes. 

If a baby is not well, or not receiving enough nutrients and oxygen, they are likely to move less to save energy. Noticing when this happens and contacting your hospital immediately is very important. Studies have shown that around 55% of people who experienced a stillbirth noticed a reduction in baby movements before their baby died. 

Read more about your baby’s movements in pregnancy

If there is a change in your baby’s movements 

Contact your midwife or maternity unit immediately if you think your baby’s movements have slowed down, stopped or changed. There are staff on the hospital maternity unit 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Do not wait until the evening or the next day – seek help even if it is the middle of the night or the weekend. 

If you think there might be a change in your baby’s movements 

If you have any concerns, call your midwife or maternity unit immediately. Trust your instincts.

Who will I talk to if I report a change in my baby's movements?

Unless you have been given alternative numbers to ring during your pregnancy, the best place to ring is usually the labour ward. The labour ward is not just for people in labour but also for emergencies in pregnancy. The ward should be open 24 hours a day and there should always be a midwife there who will be able to listen to your worries and advise you. Midwives often receive calls about reduced baby movements – they would much rather you got in touch than didn’t.

What will happen if I go into hospital?

Once at the hospital, they will probably check you over and listen to the baby’s heartbeat. If you are more than 28 weeks pregnant they may attach you to a heart rate monitor which records a trace of the baby’s heartbeat. You may also be given a button to push every time you feel the baby move. This can also be seen on the print out of the baby’s heartbeat.

It's quite common that once you lie down, hear the baby’s heartbeat and relax you start to feel the baby kicking. Don’t feel embarrassed about this – midwives see this every day. It is much better to go and be checked so that any potential problems can be picked up.

Find out more about what should happen if you report a change in fetal movements.

Leaking fluid or vaginal discharge in pregnancy

If you experience any leaking of fluid from your vagina during your pregnancy, you should contact your hospital immediately and go into be monitored. It could be your waters breaking early or a sign of infection of the womb.

Waters breaking early in pregnancy

Waters can sometimes break early in pregnancy, not just in the last couple of weeks, and this can lead to premature birth. If you feel a gush or trickle of fluid from your vagina, or feel damp, it could be a sign that your waters have broken. Put on a clean sanitary towel (not a tampon) and call the maternity unit straight away. They may ask you to sniff the pad – as it is common to leak urine in pregnancy – or they may ask you to check the pad again in around 20 minutes to see if it is damp.

Amniotic fluid (the fluid from around the baby) smells different to urine and is usually clear, pinkish or can be green or brown. If you think it might be amniotic fluid, it is important to go straight to the hospital to be examined. You may be asked to wear a special panty liner for up to 12 hours to confirm if you are leaking amniotic fluid, and you may need an internal examination (inside the vagina) to look for signs that your cervix is opening or softening for labour.

Infection in pregnancy

You should report any discharge from your vagina which is smelly, and any colour other than white, as it may be a sign of an intrauterine infection. Infections can weaken the bag of membranes around the baby, cause an infection inside the womb or make your waters break. 

If you experience an unusual discharge, contact your midwife, GP or hospital and ask for a swab to be taken to look for infection. Other symptoms of an infection include a high temperature or stomach pain. 

Diabetes in pregnancy

People with diabetes in pregnancy are more affected by: 

  • miscarriage 
  • pre-eclampsia
  • preterm labour 
  • stillbirth 
  • problems with the baby (while in the womb, at delivery and after the birth).  

It’s very important to control your blood sugar levels and get regular monitoring during your pregnancy. Whether you had diabetes already, or develop diabetes during pregnancy (gestational diabetes), you will be closely monitored during your pregnancy. You will need to be aware of how best to care for yourself and your baby during your pregnancy.

What to do if you have diabetes in pregnancy

The best way to reduce the risks to you and your baby is to make sure that your diabetes is well controlled before you get pregnant. Before you start trying for a baby, ask your GP or diabetes specialist for advice. They will be able to give you information about how pregnancy and diabetes may affect you.  

If you are pregnant with diabetes, you will probably be regularly seen by a consultant and a specialist diabetes midwife and/or diabetes specalist. Make sure that you attend all your scheduled appointments so your healthcare team can monitor your condition. Seek help immediately from your GP, midwife or hospital doctors if you are concerned about your blood sugar control or any other factors affecting your pregnancy or your diabetes.

Monitoring the growth and movements of your baby is very important. If you’re worried, do not wait until the next day to get help – you can contact the labour ward to speak to a midwife 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

If you have any of the risk factors for developing gestational diabetes, including having a BMI of 30 or over, you should be offered a blood sugar test between 24 and 28 weeks. It is important to go to this blood test. 

Pre-eclampsia and stillbirth

Pre-eclampsia is common. It is usually mild and normally has very little effect on pregnancy. However, it is important to know if you have the condition because, in a small number of cases, it can develop into a more serious illness. Severe pre-eclampsia can be life-threatening for both the mum/birthing person and the baby. 

Early signs of pre-eclampsia include having high blood pressure (hypertension) and protein in your urine (proteinuria). 

Pre-eclampsia is one of the pregnancy conditions your midwife will be testing for at your antenatal appointments, which is why it’s important to attend all of your appointments.

Signs of pre-eclampsia

Look out for any of the warning signs of pre-eclampsia, such as: 

  • severe headaches
  • vision problems, such as blurring or flashing
  • sudden swelling, particularly of your feet, ankles, hands and face
  • pain just under the ribs
  • vomiting. 

If you notice any of these, contact your GP, midwife or maternity unit straightaway. Don’t wait until your next scheduled appointment. You should be seen by a healthcare professional the same day. 

Read more about risk factors, diagnosis and treatment of pre-eclampsia.

Obstetric cholestasis (intrahepatic cholestasis)

Intrahepatic cholestasis of pregnancy (ICP), also known as obstetric cholestasis (OC), is a liver disorder that can develop during pregnancy. It has been linked to an increased risk of stillbirth in some cases. The main symptom is itching, usually without a rash. This is often worse at night and more noticeable on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. 

Itching is very common in pregnancy and only a small number of pregnant will have ICP. But if you are having itching, it’s important to tell your midwife or doctor.

Read more about obstetric cholestasis

Finding the causes of stillbirth

Sadly, many parents never find out why their baby died. A report of all UK stillbirths showed around 35.5% of stillbirths were unexplained in 2018. 

Tommy’s researchers are investigating the causes of stillbirth because unless we know why it happens, we can't find treatments or predict who may be at risk. 

Read more about Tommy's research into stillbirth.

 

Review dates
Reviewed: 11 February 2022 | Next review: 11 February 2025