When a fetal death occurs past the 20th week of pregnancy, it is referred to as a stillbirth. A stillbirth is often the result of natural causes, and usually happens prior to labor. An expectant mother may suspect that something is wrong when there is an absence of movement in the womb. Confirmation of a stillbirth can be made using an ultrasound examination, which can show that the fetus's heart has stopped beating. A small percentage of stillbirths occur during labor and delivery. Whenever they occur, stillbirths can be devastating for parents.

Stillbirth has various causes, including chromosomal and genetic abnormalities in the fetus. Maternal age is also a factor: Women older than 40 are at increased risk for stillbirth. Other causes may include the following:

  • Placental problems
  • Poor fetal growth
  • Umbilical-cord accidents
  • Infection
  • Trauma or injury

Hypertension, diabetes and obesity increase the chances of a stillbirth during pregnancy. There is also a greater risk when the mother is carrying multiple fetuses. In some cases, the exact cause of stillbirth cannot be determined.

If the stillbirth occurs before labor has begun, labor is often induced. In most cases, the fetus is delivered vaginally, unless there are problems with labor and delivery that necessitate a Cesarean section. After delivery, the fetus, placenta and umbilical cord are examined to determine the cause of the stillbirth.

Parents often experience denial, anger, grief and depression after the loss of an unborn child, and may find it beneficial to join a support group. Although not every stillbirth can be prevented, a woman can sometimes reduce her risk by working with her physician. If she suffers from a high-risk condition such as diabetes or high blood pressure, she can get the condition under control before conceiving again. Many women who have had stillbirths go on to have healthy babies.

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