Stillbirth is the term used when a baby is born dead after 24 complete weeks of pregnancy; losing a baby earlier than this in pregnancy is referred to as a miscarriage.
In many cases the cause of the baby’s death cannot be identified, although a post- mortem may be able to provide some information about the reason for the death.
In around 10% of cases the baby has some kind of abnormality. But there are a number of other factors that may play a part including bleeding before or during labour, problems with the placenta or a problem with the umbilical cord.
Health issues affecting the mother such as high blood pressure, diabetes or an infection, can also be a cause.
Factors that increase the risk
If a stillbirth is suspected before labour begins an ultrasound scan is used to check whether the baby’s heart is beating.
It is uncommon for a baby to die during labour or birth, but when this does occur it is usually caused by something that happened at this time, such as a knot in the cord or a problem with the placenta which leads to problems with the baby’s oxygen supply.
If the baby dies in the womb labour will need to be induced. This is usually done by inserting a pessary, or gel into the vagina, although sometimes a tablet is given or the mother is put on a drip.
In most cases birth then occurs within 24 hours. Induction to bring on labour is usually safer for the mother than a Caesarean, which is major surgery, but in some cases, when the mother’s health is at risk, a Caesarean may be considered necessary.
What happens after the baby is born depends on what the parents want. Some parents want to hold their baby and to have mementos such as photos, a lock of hair or hand and foot prints; others prefer not to see their baby at all.
You will be given a lot of support both during labour and afterwards. There may be a doctor or counsellor at the hospital who specialises in bereavement counselling, or the hospital may have a bereavement support officer who can help you get through the practicalities of what happens next.
You will be asked if you want your baby to have a post-mortem – a detailed medical examination of the baby. This may be able to tell you about the cause of the stillbirth.
Even if a definite reason isn’t found it may rule out certain causes, such as infection and give information on how any future pregnancy should be managed.
The results of a post-mortem can take several weeks and your consultant should discuss the results with you and a follow up appointment.
The trauma of losing a baby affects people in different ways. Some people want to get back to normal as quickly as possible, while others need to grieve in private for a while.
The important thing is to do what’s right for you.
The support of your partner and family can be very important at this time.
It can be difficult if your partner seems to get over the loss quicker than you, but everyone grieves differently and your partner may be trying to be strong and not show his feelings. If you feel you are not coping with your loss seek professional help from your doctor or get referred to a counsellor.
During the weeks after a stillbirth your body itself will be constant reminder of your loss and this can be very distressing.
You'll have vaginal bleeding and your breasts will produce milk, but your doctor will be able to help you with these physical changes.
Trying for another baby is something that some women want to do almost immediately, while others put off making the decision for some time. The important thing is that mentally and physically you have recovered from your loss before you become pregnant again.
Once you have decided that you want to become pregnant again you should discuss the reason (if known) for the stillbirth with your healthcare providers. After a stillbirth you will be monitored more closely through future pregnancies and births.
To get further online information, visit SANDS (the Stillbirth & Neonatal Death Charity)