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Studies Identify Stillbirth Risk Factors, Causes

Women Can Change Some Risks, Researchers Say

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.

Stillbirths: Perspective on Causes, Risk Factors

The two new studies are an important contribution in an under-studied research area, says Gene Burkett, MD, professor of obstetrics and gynecology in the maternal-fetal medicine division at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. He reviewed the findings but was not involved in the research.

"If we can find the risk factors and make a pointed effort to deal with the risk factors, we can lower the incidence of stillbirths," he says.

Burkett heads an effort to reduce stillbirth at his university. One of the causes noted by Silver's group, placental problems, may actually reflect underlying health conditions that need treatment, Burkett says.

Even so, the findings point to the need for good and early prenatal care, he says, especially for those known now to be at higher risk.

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