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Understanding Stillbirth -- the Basics

What Is Stillbirth?

Stillbirth is the delivery, after the 20th week of pregnancy, of a baby who has died. Loss of a baby before the 20th week of pregnancy is called a miscarriage.

A baby is stillborn in about 1 in 200 pregnancies. Because many stillbirths happen in what appear to be normal pregnancies, they can be devastating to the parents.

Most women who have a stillbirth will be able to have a healthy baby in their next pregnancy. If the stillbirth was caused by certain chromosomal problems or an umbilical cord problem, the chances of it happening again are small. If the cause was a chronic illness in the mom or a genetic disorder in the parents, the risk is higher. On average, the chance of a successful future pregnancy is more than 90%.

What Causes Stillbirth?

In about half of all cases, the cause of stillbirth is unknown. The causes of a stillbirth that are understood include:

  • Birth defects, with or without a chromosomal abnormality.
  • Problems with the umbilical cord. With a prolapsed umbilical cord, the cord comes out of the vagina before the baby, blocking the oxygen supply before the baby can breathe on its own. Or the cord can knot or wrap tightly around a limb or the baby's neck prior to delivery.
  • Problems with the placenta, which nourishes the baby. In a placental abruption, the placenta separates too soon from the uterine wall.
  • Conditions in the mother like diabetes or high blood pressure, particularly pregnancy-induced high blood pressure or preeclampsia.
  • Intrauterine growth restriction or IUGR, which puts the fetus at risk of dying from lack of nutrition
  • Severe lack of nutrition.
  • Infections during pregnancy.
  • Exposure to environmental agents such as pesticides or carbon monoxide. 
  • A personal or family history of blood clotting conditions like thrombosis, thrombophlebitis, or pulmonary embolism.


Am I at Risk for Stillbirth

You may have a higher risk for stillbirth if you have any of these risk factors:

  • A previous stillbirth
  • Alcohol or drug abuse
  • Smoking
  • Obesity
  • Being under 15 or over 35

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Nivin Todd, MD, FACOG on March 17, 2014

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