What is a stillbirth?

A stillbirth is when a fetus dies after the mother’s 20th week of pregnancy. The baby may have died in the uterus weeks or hours before labor. Rarely, the baby may die during labor. Although prenatal care has drastically improved over the years, the reality is stillbirths still happen and often go unexplained.

A stillbirth is classified as either an early stillbirth, a late stillbirth, or a term stillbirth. Those types are determined by the number of weeks of pregnancy:

  • Early stillbirth: The fetus dies between 20 and 27 weeks.
  • Late stillbirth: The fetus dies between 28 and 36 weeks.
  • Term stillbirth: The fetus dies the 37th week or after.

How common are stillbirths?

A stillbirth occurs in about one of 160 births (about 24,000 babies per year in the United States).

Who is at risk of having a stillbirth?

A stillbirth can happen to pregnant women of any age, background, or ethnicity. They can be unpredictable – 1/3 of cases go unexplained. There are some ways you can reduce your risk, though. You’re more likely to have a stillbirth if you:

  • Smoke, drink alcohol, or use recreational drugs.
  • Are an older mother (age 35 or older).
  • Have poor prenatal care.
  • Are malnourished.
  • Are African-American.
  • Are having multiple births (twins or more).
  • Have a preexisting health condition.
  • Are obese (body mass index above 30).

What’s the difference between a stillbirth and a miscarriage?

Like a stillbirth, a miscarriage is also a pregnancy loss. However, while a stillbirth is the loss of a baby after 20 weeks of pregnancy, a miscarriage happens before the 20th week.

What causes a stillbirth?

The cause of the stillbirth is vital not only for the healthcare providers to know, but for the parents to help with the grieving process. The cause is not always known (1/3 of stillbirths cannot be explained), but the most likely causes include:

  • Problems with the placenta and/or the umbilical cord. Your placenta is an organ that lines your uterus when you’re pregnant. Through it and the umbilical cord, the fetus gets blood, oxygen and nutrients. Any problems with your placenta or umbilical cord and the fetus will not develop properly.
  • Preeclampsia. Preeclampsia is high blood pressure and swelling that often happens late in the pregnancy. If you have preeclampsia, you have twice the risk of placental abruption or stillbirth.
  • Lupus. A mother who has lupus is at risk of having a stillbirth.
  • Clotting disorders. A mother who has a blood clotting disorder like hemophilia is at a high risk.
  • The mother’s medical conditions. Other illnesses can sometimes cause stillbirths. The list includes diabetes, heart disease, thyroid disease, or a viral or bacterial infection.
  • Lifestyle choices. If your lifestyle includes drinking, using recreational drugs and/or smoking, you’re more likely to have a stillbirth.
  • Birth defects. One or more birth defects are the cause of about 25% of stillbirths. Birth defects are rarely discovered without a thorough examination of the baby, including an autopsy (an internal examination of the baby’s body).
  • Infection. An infection between week 24 and week 27 can cause a fetal death. Usually, it’s a bacterial infection that travels from your vagina to the womb. Common bacteria include group B streptococcus, E. coli, klebsiella, enterococcus, Haemophilus influenza, chlamydia and mycoplasma or ureaplasma. Additional problems include rubella, the flu, herpes, Lyme disease and malaria, among others. Some infections go unnoticed until there are serious complications.
  • Trauma. Trauma such as a car crash can result in a stillbirth.
  • Intrahepatic cholestasis of pregnancy (ICP): Also known as obstetric cholestasis, this is a liver disorder that includes severe itching.

What physical symptoms does the mother have after stillbirth?

If you have a fever, bleeding, chills, or pain, be sure to contact your healthcare provider right away because these may be signs of an infection.

Will I lactate after a stillbirth?

After the delivery of the placenta, the milk-producing hormones may be activated (lactation). You might start to produce breast milk. Unless you have preeclampsia, you can take medicines called dopamine agonists that may stop your breasts from producing milk. You can also choose to let the lactation stop naturally.

Does stillbirth cause infertility?

No. A stillbirth does not cause infertility and it doesn’t indicate that there is a problem with it.

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