Stillbirth refers to the death of a 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.
Stillbirth is more common in African American women, and those aged 35 years and older. Other factors that may increase your chance of stillbirth 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 1 baby, no intervention may be needed. The mother may choose to have labor induced by taking medications. 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:
The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists
American Pregnancy Association
Women’s Health Matters
The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. ACOG practice bulletin No. 102: Management of stillbirth. Obstet Gynecol. 2009 Mar;113(3):748-61. Reaffirmed 2012.
Kent DR, West J. Obstetrics and gynecology: a modern approach to the management of intrauterine fetal death. West J Med. 1977;126(4):298-299.
Ogunyemi D. Stillbirths. Cedars-Sinai website. Available at: http://www.cedars-sinai.edu/Education/Graduate-Medical-Education/Residency-Programs/Obstetrics-and-Gynecology/Didactic-Program/Documents/stillbirth-officepresentation-85767.pdf. Accessed October 8, 2015.
Stillbirth. The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia website. Available at: http://www.chop.edu/conditions-diseases/stillbirth#.VhZuqCsTDOs. Accessed October 8, 2015.
Stillbirth. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated June 9, 2015. Accessed October 8, 2015.
Stillbirth: trying to understand. American Pregnancy Association website. Available at: http://www.americanpregnancy.org/pregnancyloss/sbtryingtounderstand.html. Updated August 2015. Accessed October 8, 2015.
12/30/2011 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed: Stillbirth Collaborative Research Network Writing Group. Association between stillbirth and risk factors known at pregnancy confirmation. JAMA. 2011;306(22):2469-2479.
12/30/2011 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed: Stillbirth Collaborative Research Network Writing Group. Causes of death among stillbirths. JAMA. 2011;306(22):2459-2468.
8/26/2014 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed: Gaskins AJ, Rich-Edwards JW, et al. Maternal prepregnancy folate intake and risk of spontaneous abortion and stillbirth. Obstet Gynecol. 2014;124(1):23-31.
Last reviewed September 2015 by Andrea Chisholm, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.