Stillbirth - Symptoms, Causes, and Coping From a Loss

Pregnant Woman Smoking
Brooke Fasani/The Image Bank/Getty Images

What is a Stillbirth?:

Most U.S. sources define stillbirth as a loss after the 20th week of pregnancy in which the baby dies before being born (a loss before 20 weeks is a miscarriage).

How Common Are Stillbirths?:

This tragedy occurs in 1 in 200 pregnancies, with the majority of stillbirths happening in full-term or close to full-term pregnancies.

What Are Risk Factors for Stillbirth?:

As with most other pregnancy losses, stillbirths can occur without any identifiable risk factors, but some factors that increase risk are:

  • Lack of prenatal care
  • Health conditions in the mother, particularly involving high blood pressure
  • Mothers older than 35
  • Smoking, drinking alcohol, or using drugs in pregnancy
  • Pregnancies past 42 weeks gestation

Can Doctors Prevent Stillbirth?:

Sometimes yes and sometimes no. As a part of prenatal care, doctors watch for early signs of problems in the mother and the baby. When risk factors exist, such as high blood pressure, the doctor can sometimes take action to reduce risk. This is why seeking prenatal care is so important.

In the case of cord accidents, chromosomal conditions, or other unforeseeable problems, however, a stillbirth can occur without warning and thus is not always preventable.

What Are Early Warning Signs / Symptoms of Possible Stillbirth?:

Stillbirth can occur without symptoms, but doctors often instruct women who are past 28 weeks pregnant to track fetal kick counts at least once a day.

If the kick count causes concern, your doctor may want you to come in for a test called an NST that checks whether your baby is safe.

Other possible warning signs include abdominal or back pain and vaginal bleeding; this could mean a condition called placental abruption. Always err on the side of caution and call your doctor if you are concerned.

What Causes Stillbirths?:

A variety of factors can cause babies to be stillborn, but some known causes are:

  • Problems with the placenta or umbilical cord (potentially caused by the risk factors discussed above)
  • Chromosomal abnormalities in the baby
  • Infections

Twenty-five percent to 60% of stillbirths are unexplained.

What Happens When Doctors Discover That a Baby Has No Heartbeat?:

If a baby is found to have no heartbeat during a prenatal checkup, the doctor may send the mom for a medical induction of labor. In some cases, the doctor may perform a C-section.

Should Parents Opt to Hold Their Stillborn Baby?:

The answer is different for everyone: Some parents find that holding the baby is essential for the coping process, while others do not want to see the baby at all. The research is mixed on whether holding the baby is therapeutic (some research suggests that holding the baby may possibly increase the risk of clinical depression), but the decision should be made by the parents.

The hardest part is that couples may not know their preferences until it's too late. Some parents who do not hold their babies end up regretting it later.

What Should Parents Know About Hospital Procedures?:

Parents usually have the option of taking photos and keeping a lock of hair.

In stillbirths, as opposed to miscarriages, there is also the option of holding a formal funeral and/or cremation, and parents should inquire about hospital policies in that area. In some cases, parents also need to decide whether to have an autopsy done on the baby to determine the reason for the stillbirth.

How Can Parents Cope with Having a Stillborn Baby?:

If you have suffered a stillbirth, you already know that coping is easier said than done. You may be facing feelings of self-blame (even though the loss was likely not your fault) or struggling to understand what happened. For moms, you might be struggling with issues like breast engorgement and postpartum depression on top of your normal grieving.

The most important thing you need to know is that it's OK to grieve. Many parents feel a deep bond with their babies long before birth, and to have that bond suddenly broken through stillbirth is understandably traumatic. You do not have to justify your grief; well-meaning but ignorant friends and relatives may pepper you with comments like "You're young; you'll have another," or "It just wasn't meant to be." It is OK to grieve.

In dealing with your grief, try to be sensitive of your spouse. For moms, understand that your partner is grieving also, even if he doesn't express his feelings the same way. He may be trying to put on a strong front to support you. For dads, try to be patient with your partner and have a ready shoulder and listening ear. Talking about the loss may be therapeutic for her. Try to be on the lookout for signs of postpartum depression in your partner and suggest she see a doctor or talk to a counselor if you are concerned.

Everyone copes differently with stillbirth, but many women find that tactics such as keeping a journal or attending support groups can be therapeutic in coping with pregnancy loss.

Stay in touch with your doctor about when you can try for a new pregnancy. Your doctor will probably want to monitor your next pregnancy more closely in order to catch any early warning signs that could indicate increased risk of stillbirth.


American Pregnancy Association, "Stillbirth: Trying to understand." Apr 2006. 

Hughes, P., P. Turton, E. Hopper, and C.D.H. Evans. "Assessment of guidelines for good practice in psychosocial care of mothers after stillbirth: a cohort study." Lancet 13 July 2002 114-18. 

Wisconsin Stillbirth Service Program, "When Your Baby is Stillborn." University of Wisconsin - Madison. 

Continue Reading