Losing a baby through stillbirth

The NHS reports that approximately 4,000 babies per year are stillborn. There are not only emotional and medical but also legal implications to stillbirths.

What is stillbirth?

In contrast to a miscarriage or live birth, a stillbirth occurs when a foetus is born dead after either dying in the uterus, labour or delivery, twenty four or more weeks into completed gestation. Pregnancies terminated due to congenital anomalies are also classified as stillbirths.

The Stillbirth Definition Act (1992) states: "any ‘child’ expelled or issued forth from its mother after the 24th week of pregnancy that did not breathe or show any other signs of life should be registered as a stillbirth" (Royal College of Midwives).

Causes of stillbirths

Causes of stillbirths are not always known and may be referred to as sudden antenatal death syndrome (SADS). Contributing factors may be chromosomal abnormalities, growth retardation, diabetes, high blood pressure, bacterial infections, physical trauma, poisoning (such as through excess alcohol or drug intake by the mother), diseases, umbilical cord accidents, amongst some.

Symptoms of stillbirth

Some symptoms of stillbirth are not obvious, but those that are include:

  • irregular foetal movement patterns or “kick counts” after the 28th week of pregnancy
  • abdominal and pelvic pain
  • vaginal bleeding

Doctors carefully look out for conditions like placental abruption or umbilical-cord changes that may result in accidental death.

Risks of stillbirth

Risk factors that doctors carefully look out for during prenatal monitoring are:

  • high blood pressure and health conditions or medications that may threaten the health of mother and baby
  • specific risks associated with the age of the mother
  • lifestyle choices, such as use of recreational drugs, excessive alcohol use and smoking

Doctors assessing the mother during pregnancy also take care to discuss lifestyle choices with the mother so that she is aware of how her choices affect not only her own health, but that of the unborn child. Stillbirths can be more prevalent after the 42nd week of gestation, so prenatal checks are vital as a preventative measure. A mother neglecting her prenatal checks puts her own health and that of her unborn baby at risk.

Is the mother's life or health at risk from stillbirth?

Besides blood clotting and emotional trauma, a stillbirth usually is not physically harmful to the mother and some mother's choose to either have a caesarean birth or still opt for vaginal birth.

Detecting possible stillbirth

A natural developing foetus adopts a consistent movement pattern within the womb that a mother can identify. Electronic foetal monitoring and ultrasound may also be used to identify the foetus’s movements. During pregnancy, the foetal movements may be used as an indicator of the foetus’s health. A rapid change from usual movement may mean that the unborn baby is in distress, and medical attention may be necessary. Examination of the mother may also be an indicator of the health condition of the mother and the likely health of the unborn child.

Is stillbirth medically preventable?

Medical professionals are trained to look out for symptoms of stillbirth and other indications posing risk to the pregnant mother and foetus, and if necessary treatments are provided to the pregnant mother during prenatal checks. Blood pressure increases are such a risk that doctors can treat.

Through prenatal monitoring, doctors often do prevent pregnancy complications, such as possible stillbirths. Certain other conditions, like chromosomal abnormalities, are not always clearly evident for treatment. In such cases, doctors cannot always prevent stillbirths.

Losing a Baby:

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