Stillbirth refers to the death of fetus after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Stillbirths usually happen before a woman goes into labor.
Stillbirth may be caused by:
In many cases, the cause is unknown.
Many factors may increase the risk of stillbirth. Risk factors in the mother include:
An ultrasound exam may be done. This will allow the doctor to examine the fetus and confirm that the heartbeat has stopped. During this exam, the doctor may be able to find out what caused the stillbirth.
After the woman has given birth, the doctor will further examine the fetus, placenta, and umbilical cord. An autopsy may be done if the parents request it. Tests can be ordered to find out if an infection or genetic disorder caused the baby’s death.
After the doctor has confirmed that the fetus has died, the parents will be involved in the decision of timing delivery. Usually, planning a vaginal delivery is the safest approach. Sometimes, a cesarean section is necessary. If there are surviving fetuses in a mother giving birth to more than one baby, no intervention may be needed. The mother may choose to have labor induced by taking medicines. Labor is usually induced by medications given vaginally, orally, or by IV.
While there is no immediate danger of waiting to deliver the baby, there is a risk of infection or a serious bleeding complication for the mother if delivery is postponed for weeks.
Having a stillborn baby is a traumatic experience for the parents. They need time to grieve the loss of their child. Emotions like shock, anger, and sadness may feel overwhelming at times. A therapist who specializes in pregnancy loss can provide support, helping parents work through their grief. Joining a support group for parents who have also suffered a pregnancy loss can be another source of support.
While there are no definite ways to prevent stillbirth, there are steps that couples can take to have a healthy pregnancy:
American Academy of Pediatrics
American Pregnancy Association
Women’s Health Matters
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Last reviewed March 2013 by Andrea Chisholm, MD
Last Updated: 3/12/2013