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Understanding Stillbirth -- Diagnosis and Treatment

How Do I Know if I Will Have a Stillbirth?

Stillbirths are rare -- they happen in only 1 in 200 pregnancies. But if they do happen, many stillbirths take place before labor. They often happen to women who have no specific risks, and there are usually no warning signals.

If you're at risk of a stillbirth, or if you feel a change in your baby's movements, your doctor or midwife may order tests to check that your baby is healthy. These tests may include ultrasound and a nonstress test (NST) to record the baby's heartbeat and movement.

Testing for Causes After a Stillbirth

After the delivery of a stillborn baby, your doctor may ask your permission to examine the baby's body to find out what went wrong. A specially trained doctor called a pathologist will perform an autopsy. This exam may involve special tests, including genetic testing. The results may help you find out your likelihood of a future healthy pregnancy and provide some comfort by answering questions about your baby's death.

This evaluation doesn't need to interfere with any plans you'd like to make for your baby's funeral. Testing is a personal decision to be made after discussing it with your partner, doctor, and supportive family members. You may also find it helpful to talk with a grief counselor for advice and support.

If the stillbirth is due to a genetic disorder, you may be referred to a genetic counselor for further testing. A genetic counselor can review your medical history and provide information about the risk of birth defects in future pregnancies.

What Are the Treatments for Stillbirth?

If your baby passes away before birth, there are usually several options for delivering the baby. There is usually no need to do this immediately unless you have medical complications. More often than not, labor will begin on its own within one to two weeks. If several weeks have passed without labor, your doctor may suggest inducing labor. Or you may prefer to have labor induced earlier. Most stillborn babies can be delivered vaginally after induction of labor, unless there are specific reasons for cesarean delivery.

If possible, before entering the hospital, consider whether you want special arrangements. You may want a private room or a room away from other women having babies. Think about whether you want to see your baby, give the baby a name, or have photographs taken. This has been a common practice since the 1980s in the belief that doing so helps women adjust to the loss. 

After a stillbirth, as with other deliveries, you may experience breast engorgement, discomfort from an episiotomy, depression, and other problems. The combination of recovering physically and emotionally may seem overwhelming.

A stillbirth is an emotionally wrenching experience. A qualified counselor, psychologist, or psychiatrist can help you and your family through this difficult time.

Guilt is a common reaction. Keep in mind that stillbirths are rarely, if ever, caused by something you did or didn't do. It's normal to feel deep grief, anger, and confusion. The loss of your child may strain your marriage. A mental health professional can offer a great deal of help. Also, consider joining a support group where you can talk about your feelings with other parents coping with the death of a baby.

WebMD Medical Reference

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

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