Stillbirth refers to the death of a baby after 24 weeks of pregnancy but before birth. A miscarriage is the loss of a baby before 24 weeks of pregnancy.
The medical profession describes stillbirth as either ‘intra-uterine’ or ‘intra-partum’. An intra-uterine stillbirth means that the baby has died in the womb. An intra-partum stillbirth means that the baby dies during labour.
What are the causes of stillbirth?
The most common reason for stillbirth is failure of the placenta, also referred to as placenta insufficiency. This is why Tommy's stillbirth research centre in Manchester focuses on the functioning of the placenta, and has a placenta clinic for women at high risk of placental problems.
The placenta delivers nutrients and oxygen to the baby. These are crucial to the baby's growth and development. If the placenta has problems, the baby does not receive enough nutrients and oxygen and fails to grow or develop. This is called intrauterine growth restriction (IUGR) or fetal growth restriction (FGR).
One of the first signs that a baby may not be getting enough food or oxygen is reduced movements and this is why health professionals ask that women monitor the pattern of their baby's movements from 16-22 weeks onwards and get in touch with the hospital immediately if they notice a change in the pattern.
Intrauterine infection is another less common cause of stillbirth. It is responsible for 1 in 10 stillbirths.
Other risk factors for stillbirth are:
- obesity during pregnancy - when the mother's BMI is over 30
- smoking during pregnancy - cigarette smoke sends toxins down the placenta to the baby instead of oxygen.
- going to sleep on your back in the third trimester - this has been linked to an increased risk of stillbirth
- the mother's age during pregnancy - there is an increased risk after 35, and again after 39.
What are the symptoms of stillbirth?
Some women say they simply knew that the baby was no longer alive, and then went to hospital where a scan would have confirmed this.
Others aren’t aware until a routine appointment finds no heartbeat, or a scan reveals the baby has died.
How can I avoid stillbirth?
There are some factors that will be beyond your control, such as your age, but there are some things you can do to reduce your risk, such as:
- quitting smoking if you smoke - cigarette smoke prevents oxygen from reaching your baby
- avoiding alcohol and drugs during pregnancy – these can seriously affect your baby's development and increase the risk of miscarriage and stillbirth
- go to sleep on your side in the third trimester as sleeping on your back is linked with an increased risk of stillbirth
- going to all your antenatal appointments and scans so that midwives can check that your baby is growing as it should
- get to know the pattern of your baby's movements from 16-22 weeks and report any reduction immediately to your hospital.
Giving birth to a stillborn baby
If the baby is found to be stillborn before labour has started it can be an intensely difficult time to decide and think about giving birth.
Sometimes the baby may need to be born straight away for the mother's health, but sometimes this is not the case. If it is not the case the parents wait be able to wait for labour to start naturally.
Giving birth naturally is usually safer than a caesarean section and medication will be given to induce the woman's labour, it can take up to 48 hours to work.
- Office for National Statistics, Characteristics of birth 1, England and Wales, Office for National Statistics. London ONS, 2013. Available from: http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/vsob1/characteristics-of-birth-1--england-and-wales/2012/index.html (accessed 14 April 2014)
- Stillbirth (Definition) Act 1992, Definition of stillborn child, Section 1(1), London The Stationery Office, 1992
- Macdonald S, Magill-Cuerden J, Mayes M. Mayes’ midwifery, Edinburgh: Baillir̈e Tindall Elsevier; 2012: page 960
ℹLast reviewed on April 1st, 2014. Next review date April 1st, 2017.
By Midwife @Tommys on 6 Mar 2017 - 09:22
Hi there. I am so sorry to hear about your son. Your love and emotions for him will have never changed in those 40yrs and that is natural, maternal love. I do wish you well and hope that you have good support. If you have not been offered counselling via your GP, as this is still really affecting you, i would suggest that this might be worthwhile for you. Please take care.
By Anonymous (not verified) on 4 Mar 2017 - 10:38
As my son was stillborn over 40 years ago, it still hurts immensely as he was taken away from me straight away and I was never told what happened to him. Please if yes can help me I would be so very grateful.