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A stillbirth is defined as the death of a fetus at any time after the twentieth week of pregnancy. Stillbirth is also referred to as intrauterine fetal death (IUFD).


It is important to distinguish between a stillbirth and other words that describe the unintentional end of a pregnancy. A pregnancy that ends before the twentieth week is called a miscarriage rather than a stillbirth, even though the death of the fetus is a common cause of miscarriage. After the twentieth week, the unintended end of a pregnancy is called a stillbirth if the infant is dead at birth and premature delivery if it is born alive.
Factors that increase a mother's risk of stillbirth include: age over 35, malnutrition, inadequate prenatal care, smoking, and alcohol or drug abuse.

Causes and symptoms


A number of different disorders can cause stillbirth. They include:
  • Pre-eclampsia and eclampsia. These are disorders of late pregnancy characterized by high blood pressure, fluid retention, and protein in the urine.
  • Diabetes in the mother.
  • Hemorrhage.
  • Abnormalities in the fetus caused by infectious diseases, including syphilis, toxoplasmosis, German measles (rubella), and influenza.
  • Severe birth defects, including spina bifida. Birth defects are responsible for about 20% of stillbirths.
  • Postmaturity. Postmaturity is a condition in which the pregnancy has lasted 41 weeks or longer.
  • Unknown causes. These account for about one-third of stillbirths.


In most cases the only symptom of stillbirth is that the mother notices that the baby has stopped moving. In some cases, the first sign of fetal death is premature labor. Premature labor is marked by a rush of fluid from the vagina, caused by the tearing of the membrane around the baby; and by abdominal cramps or contractions.


When the mother notices that fetal movement has stopped, the doctor can use several techniques to evaluate whether the baby has died. The doctor can listen for the fetal heartbeat with a stethoscope, use Doppler ultrasound to detect the heartbeat, or give the mother an electronic fetal nonstress test. In this test, the mother lies on her back with electronic monitors attached to her abdomen. The monitors record the baby's heart rate, movements, and contractions of the uterus.



In most cases of intrauterine death, the mother will go into labor within two weeks of the baby's death. If the mother does not go into labor, the doctor will bring on (induce) labor in order to prevent the risk of hemorrhage. Labor is usually induced by giving the mother a drug (oxytocin) that cause the uterus to contract.

Follow-up therapy

Emotional support from family and friends, self-help groups, and counseling by a mental health professional can help bereaved parents cope with their loss.


With the exception of women with diabetes, women who have a stillbirth have as good a chance of carrying a future pregnancy to term as women who are pregnant for the first time.


The risk of stillbirth can be lowered to some extent by good prenatal care and the mother's avoidance of exposure to infectious diseases, smoking, alcohol abuse, or drug consumption. Tests before delivery (antepartum testing), such as ultrasound, the alpha-fetoprotein blood test, and the electronic fetal nonstress test, can be used to evaluate the health of the fetus before there is a stillbirth.



Johnson, Robert V. Mayo Clinic Complete Book of Pregnancy and Baby's First Year. New York: William Morrow and Co., Inc.


Compassionate Friends. P.O. Box 3696, Oak Brook, IL 60522. (877) 969-0010. 〈http:www/〉.
GriefNet. P.O. Box 3272, Ann Arbor, MI 48106.
Hannah's Prayer. P.O. Box 5016, Auburn CA 95604. (775) 852-9202.
M.E.N.D. (Mommies Enduring Neonatal Death). P.O. Box 1007, Coppell, TX 75067. (972) 459-2396; (888) 695-6363.
Pregnancy and Infant Loss Support (SHARE). St. Joseph Health Center, 300 First Capitol Dr., St. Charles, MO 63301. (800) 821-6819.

Key terms

Alpha-fetoprotein analysis — A blood test that can be done after the sixteenth week of pregnancy to evaluate the possibility of spina bifida and other birth defects in the fetus.
Electronic fetal nonstress test — A test in which electronic monitors attached to the mother's abdomen to detect contractions of the uterus as well as the baby's heartbeat and movements.
Miscarriage — The spontaneous end of a pregnancy before the twentieth week. The death of the fetus is a common cause of miscarriage.
Oxytocin — A drug that is given to induce labor in some cases of stillbirth.
Pre-eclampsia and eclampsia — Disorders of late pregnancy associated with high blood pressure, fluid retention, and protein in the urine. They can cause stillbirth.
Premature delivery — The birth of a live baby when a pregnancy ends spontaneously after the twentieth week.
Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


delivery of a dead child.
Miller-Keane Encyclopedia and Dictionary of Medicine, Nursing, and Allied Health, Seventh Edition. © 2003 by Saunders, an imprint of Elsevier, Inc. All rights reserved.


The birth of an infant who has died before delivery.
Farlex Partner Medical Dictionary © Farlex 2012


1. The birth of a dead infant.
2. An infant who is dead at birth.
The American Heritage® Medical Dictionary Copyright © 2007, 2004 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.


A term which is specifically defined in England and Wales as a child issuing forth from its mother after the 24th completed week of pregnancy, which did not at any time after being completely expelled from its mother breathe or show any other signs of life.
Segen's Medical Dictionary. © 2012 Farlex, Inc. All rights reserved.


Death in utero Obstetric Fetal death before complete extraction or expulsion of a product of conception, irrespective of duration of pregnancy Reproduction medicine A fetus or infant delivered without signs of life after 20 wks or more of gestation
McGraw-Hill Concise Dictionary of Modern Medicine. © 2002 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


The birth of an infant who has died before delivery.
Medical Dictionary for the Health Professions and Nursing © Farlex 2012


Birth of a dead baby. The distinction from MISCARRIAGE is arbitrary and, in Britain, is set at 28 weeks of pregnancy. Stillbirths must be registered and the cause of death established before a certificate of stillbirth can be provided and burial may take place.
Collins Dictionary of Medicine © Robert M. Youngson 2004, 2005
References in periodicals archive ?
The risk of stillbirth is four to five times higher in women with ( diabetes compared to those who don't have this illness.
An increase in bile acid is associated with an increased risk of stillbirth, preterm birth, and neonatal unit admission.
The World Health Organisation defines stillbirth as a foetal death after 28 weeks of pregnancy, or when a baby who has reached viable gestational age dies before birth.
From 40 to 41 weeks, there was a 64 per cent increase in the risk of stillbirth, while neonatal mortality was significantly higher for babies born after the 41 week mark.
The highest risk of stillbirth occurred when pregnancies went beyond 41 weeks -- then the odds rose by 87%, the British researchers said.
A secondary analysis of all stillbirths across SA (>500 g and [greater than or equal to] 28 weeks [less than or equal to] 40 weeks) between October 2013 and December 2016 was conducted.
The Government's plans only include inquests for full-term stillbirths which is a good starting point.
Clea Harmer, chief executive of Sands, a stillbirth and neonatal death charity, said the strategy "will protect babies' lives and ensure fewer families suffer grief and loss".
Another limitation of the study, acknowledged by Regan and coauthors, is the relatively small number of stillbirths in subsequent pregnancies (228) despite this being the largest study of its kind to date.
He said that domestic violence and falls had accounted for some stillbirths, adding, 'usually in those situations, what happens is that the placenta separates.
A total of 74% of all stillbirths from 2001 to 2014 were late foetal deaths (n = 1,340).