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(Fetal Demise)


Antonette T. Dulay

, MD, Main Line Health System

Last full review/revision Oct 2020| Content last modified Oct 2020

Stillbirth is death of a fetus after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

Pregnancy complications are problems that occur only during pregnancy. They may affect the woman, the fetus, or both and may occur at different times during the pregnancy. However, most pregnancy complications can be effectively treated. Stillbirth increases the risk of death of the fetus in subsequent pregnancies.

Causes of Stillbirth

Stillbirth may result from a problem in the woman, placenta, or fetus. Sometimes what causes a stillbirth is unknown.

The fetus may die when women have certain conditions, such as

Sometimes the fetus dies when it has a problem, such as

Problems with the placenta may also result in death of the fetus. These problems may include the following:

Diagnosis of Stillbirth

  • A doctor's evaluation

  • Tests to identify the cause

Doctors may suspect that the fetus is dead if the fetus stops moving, although movements often decrease as the growing fetus has less room to move. Tests to evaluate the fetus Fetal monitoring Labor is a series of rhythmic, progressive contractions of the uterus that gradually move the fetus through the lower part of the uterus (cervix) and birth canal (vagina) to the outside world... read more , are usually done. These tests include the following:

  • A nonstress test: The fetus's heart rate is monitored when the fetus is lying still and as it moves. For this test, doctors use a device attached to the woman’s abdomen.

  • Biophysical profile: Ultrasonography is used to produce images of the fetus in real time, and the fetus is observed. This test enables doctors to evaluate the amount of amniotic fluid and check the fetus for periods of rhythmic breathing, movement, and muscle tone.

To try to identify the cause, doctors do genetic and blood tests (such as tests for infections, diabetes, thyroid disorders, and antiphospholipid antibody syndrome). Doctors also recommend evaluating the fetus to look for possible causes, such as infections and chromosomal abnormalities. The placenta and uterus are examined. Often, the cause cannot be determined.

Treatment of Stillbirth

  • If needed, drugs to expel the fetus

  • If needed, procedures to remove any remaining tissues in the uterus

  • Emotional support and counseling

If the dead fetus is not expelled, the woman may be given a prostaglandin (a hormonelike drug that stimulates the uterus to contract), such as misoprostol, to cause the cervix to open (dilate). She is then usually given oxytocin, a drug that stimulates labor, depending on how far along the pregnancy is.

If the pregnancy is less than 24 weeks or the fetus is relatively small, dilation and evacuation (D and E) may be done to remove the dead fetus. Before D and E, doctors may use natural substances that absorb fluids (such as seaweed stems) or a drug (such as misoprostol) to help open the cervix.

If any tissue from the fetus or placenta remains in the uterus, suction curettage Surgical abortion Induced abortion is the intentional ending of a pregnancy by surgery or drugs. A pregnancy may be ended by surgically removing the contents of the uterus or by taking certain drugs. Complications... read more is done to remove it. A speculum is used to spread the walls of the vagina, and the cervix is dilated. Then a flexible tube is inserted into the uterus to remove the fetus and placenta. The tube is attached to a handheld syringe or an electrical suction machine, which suctions out any remaining tissue.

The physical care for women who have had a stillbirth is the same as that usually provided after delivery of a baby (postpartum care Hospital (What to Expect) The postdelivery (postpartum) period is the 6 weeks after delivery of a baby, when the mother’s body returns to its prepregnancy state. After delivery, the mother can expect to have some symptoms... read more ). However, extra emotional and social support is needed.

If disseminated intravascular coagulation develops, women are given blood transfusions as needed.

Changes and emotions Emotions after miscarriage A miscarriage is the loss of a fetus due to natural causes before 20 weeks of pregnancy. Miscarriages may occur because of a problem in the fetus (such as a genetic disorder or birth defect)... read more that occur in women after a stillbirth are similar to those that occur after a miscarriage. Women typically feel grief at the loss and require emotional support and sometimes counseling.

Whether a future pregnancy is likely to result in a stillbirth depends on the cause.

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Test your knowledge
Postpartum Depression
Postpartum depression is a feeling of extreme sadness and related psychologic disturbances after delivery of a baby. Although it is common to feel sad or miserable within 3 days of delivery (the baby blues), these feelings usually go away within 2 weeks. Postpartum depression is a more serious mood change. Women in which of the following groups are at increased risk for this condition?
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