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Stillbirth

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Stillbirth

Condition Basics

What is stillbirth?

Stillbirth is the loss of a baby after 20 weeks of pregnancy but before the baby is born. It can happen during the pregnancy or during labor.

The loss of a baby can be hard. You may wonder why it happened. A loss can happen even in a pregnancy that had been going well.

When stillbirth occurs before labor, a doctor usually delivers the baby either by giving you medicine to start labor or by doing a procedure called dilation and evacuation (D&E).

What causes it?

A stillbirth may be caused by:

  • A problem with the baby's health, such as a birth defect or slowed growth and development.
  • A problem with the placenta, such as the placenta tearing away from the uterus too soon (placental abruption).
  • An infection.
  • A problem with the umbilical cord, such as twisting, which can cut off oxygen to the baby.

In many cases, the cause of stillbirth is unknown. But there are some things that can increase your risk. Your risk may be higher if you:

  • Have a health problem, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, preeclampsia, obesity, or a blood clotting problem.
  • Are pregnant with twins or more.
  • Are older than 35.
  • Use tobacco or certain drugs, such as cocaine.
  • Had a previous stillbirth.

What might help with your emotions after stillbirth?

You may have many different emotions after a stillbirth. People cope with their emotions in different ways. Try to take care of yourself in whatever way feels best for you. Tell your family and friends what they can do. You may want to spend time alone, or you may seek the comfort of family and friends. Support can also come from a counselor, support groups, or religious or spiritual groups. Try to eat healthy foods, get some sleep, and get exercise (or just get outside) as you heal.

It may help to create a memory book of your pregnancy and baby. You may want to take pictures and keep a lock of hair. The hospital may take photographs or footprints for you. Some people have a ceremony, such as a christening or other blessing or a memorial service.

What kind of support will you need?

Talk to your doctor about how you are coping. You may want to have counseling for support and to help you express your feelings. Support can also come from family and friends, support groups, or religious or spiritual groups.

You also may want to talk to others who have gone through this loss. You can make connections online or in person:

  • The Compassionate Friends. This is a resource for people who have lost a child. The group can help put you in touch with one of its support groups in your area. Go to www.compassionatefriends.org for more information.
  • Share (Pregnancy and Infant Loss Support, Inc.). This group can offer advice and connections to others who have lost a child. Go to www.nationalshare.org for more information.
  • The International Stillbirth Alliance. This group offers information and resources. Go to www.stillbirthalliance.org for more information.

Can stillbirth be prevented?

If you have lost a baby, you may worry about a future pregnancy. But a stillbirth often happens because of a one-time event. It doesn't mean that you won't go on to have a healthy baby in the future.

Doctors often can do exams and tests to find out why a stillbirth happened. They may examine the baby and the placenta. An autopsy is sometimes done, if you want it, to find the cause of death. This may help by answering questions about what happened. And it may help find out if there is any risk for a future pregnancy. You may also have testing to see if a genetic problem may have led to the stillbirth.

You can't prevent every problem. But some behaviors can increase the chance of a healthy baby. Try to take care of yourself before you get pregnant and during pregnancy. Eat a healthy diet that includes folic acid (especially before you are pregnant and early in the pregnancy), and get regular exercise. It's especially important to avoid alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs. And if you have chronic medical problems, like high blood pressure or diabetes, talk to your doctor about how to plan for a healthy pregnancy.

How long should you wait before you try to get pregnant again?

Talk to your doctor about when you can try to get pregnant again. It may depend on how quickly your body heals and what was done to help deliver the baby. For example, if you had a C-section to deliver the baby, the uterus needs time to heal.

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Current as of: July 11, 2023

Author: Healthwise Staff
Clinical Review Board
All Healthwise education is reviewed by a team that includes physicians, nurses, advanced practitioners, registered dieticians, and other healthcare professionals.

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