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Health & Pregnancy

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Studies Identify Stillbirth Risk Factors, Causes

Women Can Change Some Risks, Researchers Say

Stillbirth: Risk Factors Known in Early Pregnancy continued...

The research results point to the need for good prenatal care and counseling, Saade tells WebMD. "It's important to start prenatal care early, so that any of these risk factors can be addressed," he says.

Even so, he says, the changeable risk factors "still account for a rather small proportion of the risk,'' probably less than a quarter of cases, he says. Other risk factors are still unknown, he says.

Eventually, the list of risk factors will be even longer, Saade says.

However, he says, some unchangeable risk factors aren't as strong as people may believe.

Even though a woman who has had one stillbirth is at increased risk of another, he says, "the majority of women with a previous stillbirth have a live birth in a subsequent pregnancy."

One major strength of this new study, Saade tells WebMD, is that it looks at an entire population, not just stillbirths from one hospital or one region. This makes the results more valid.

Stillbirth: Causes of Death

In a second study, researchers conducted autopsies on stillborn infants. The study was done from March 2006 to September 2008 at the 59 hospitals. They found a probable or possible cause of death in 390 of them, with 312 of them having a probable cause.

"A cause of death can be found in the majority of cases," says study researcher Bob Silver, MD, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

Most commonly, the causes of death were:

  • Obstetric complications
  • Placental abnormalities
  • Fetal genetic or structural abnormalities
  • Infection
  • Umbilical cord abnormalities
  • High blood pressure or other health problems in the mother

African-American mothers were more likely to have a stillbirth than women of other races, with 43% of black women (but 23% of women of other races) experiencing a stillbirth.

Silver tells WebMD that many parents are reluctant to undergo an autopsy on the fetus. However, he encourages them to do so. "We think it's really important to find a cause," he says. "It helps facilitate emotional healing and closure for parents."

"Almost invariably, they want to think about another pregnancy," he says of parents who have a stillborn infant. With the information from the autopsy, an evaluation of the placenta, and genetic testing on the baby, he says, the parents can be counseled about future pregnancies.

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