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This topic has information about the loss of a baby after 20 weeks of pregnancy but before the baby is born. For information about pregnancy loss before 20 weeks, see the topic Miscarriage.
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 labour. Stillbirth occurs in about 1 out of 200 pregnancies.footnote 1
The loss of a baby is devastating and very hard to accept. You may wonder why it happened or blame yourself. But a stillbirth can happen even in a pregnancy that has been going well.
When stillbirth occurs before labour, a doctor usually delivers the baby either by giving the woman medicine to start labour or by doing surgery (caesarean section, or C-section).
What causes stillbirth?
In many cases, no one knows what causes stillbirth. But a cause often is found. 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 mother's health, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, or a blood-clotting problem.
- A problem with the placenta, such as the placenta tearing away from the uterus too soon (placental abruption).
- An infection in the mother or baby.
- A problem with the umbilical cord, such as twisting, which can cut off oxygen to the baby.
What kind of support will you need?
People go through grief in their own ways. You may cry a lot and feel angry and hopeless. You may want to blame yourself or someone else. It might be hard to eat or sleep.
You and your partner may not grieve in the same way. Each of you needs to take care of yourself in whatever way feels best. 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. Try to eat healthy foods, get some sleep, and get exercise (or just get out of the house) to help you feel strong as you heal.
Talk to your doctor about how you are coping. He or she will want to watch you for signs of depression. You may want to have counselling for support and to help you express your feelings.
It may help to create a memory book of your pregnancy and baby. Many parents name their baby and want to take pictures and keep a lock of hair. The hospital may take photographs or footprints for you. Some parents have a ceremony, such as a christening or other blessing or a funeral service.
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 of Canada is a resource for people who have lost a child. The website is http://tcfcanada.net. The group can help put you in touch with one of its support groups in your area.
- Bereaved Families of Ontario is a resource for people who have lost a child or other family member. The group can help put you in touch with one of its support groups in your area. The website is www.bereavedfamilies.net. It includes links to other groups similar to Bereaved Families of Ontario throughout Canada.
- Share (Pregnancy and Infant Loss Support, Inc.) also can offer advice and connections to others who have lost a child. Go to www.nationalshare.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.
Doctors often can do examinations and tests to find out why a stillbirth happened. They may examine the baby and the placenta. An autopsy is sometimes done, if the parents want it, to find the cause of death. Some parents find that this helps them by answering their questions about what happened. And it may help find out if there is any risk for a future pregnancy. A doctor also may test the parents to see if a genetic problem may have led to the stillbirth.
You can't prevent every problem. But some behaviours can increase the chance of a healthy baby. Doctors encourage women to take care of themselves before they 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.
Later in pregnancy, a doctor usually will ask a woman to keep track of her baby's kicks and call right away if the baby is moving less than before.
How long should you wait before you try to get pregnant again?
Talk to your doctor about when he or she thinks you can try to get pregnant again. It depends on how quickly your body heals and on what was done to help deliver the baby. For example, if you had a C-section to deliver the baby, the uterus needs more time to heal.
You also may want to make sure that you and your family are emotionally ready to try again to get pregnant.
- National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (2010). Research on Miscarriage and Stillbirth. Available online: http://www.nichd.nih.gov/womenshealth/research/pregbirth/miscarriage_stillbirth.cfm.
Current as of: June 16, 2021
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review: Sarah Marshall MD - Family Medicine
Anne C. Poinier MD - Internal Medicine
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Femi Olatunbosun MB, FRCSC - Obstetrics and Gynecology
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