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What is a Stillbirth?

A stillbirth is defined as a fetus that dies after 20 weeks gestation.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 16 October 2014
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A baby or fetus which is born dead is known as a stillbirth. This term is also used to describe the process of labor and delivery which leads to a stillbirth. For parents, a stillbirth can be especially traumatic, because the parents may have thought that they were beyond the initial risk of miscarriage. It is common for parents who experienced a stillbirth to take time to grieve, and the fetus or baby is usually given burial rites as a mark of respect.

The precise definition of a stillbirth varies. In many regions, a stillbirth is defined as a baby or fetus which dies after 20 weeks of pregnancy, differentiated from a miscarriage, a death at 20 weeks or less. Many people define a stillbirth as a death which occurs after the point of extrauterine viability, meaning that the baby could have survived outside the mother, although the baby might have required extensive time in an intensive care unit.

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You may also hear a stillbirth described as an intrauterine fetal death. A number of causes can lead to a stillbirth, some of which are beyond a mother's control. For example, problems with the development of the placenta or umbilical cord can cause the baby to die due to lack of nutrients. In the case of a multiple birth, sometimes a stillbirth occurs because a fetus is crowded out by siblings. Severe birth defects may also lead to stillbirth, as can maternal health problems like high blood pressure and diabetes.

A stillbirth is usually diagnosed after a mother notes a profound reduction in fetal movement and an ultrasound is performed to check on the health of a baby. In most cases, labor will begin naturally around two weeks after fetal death. Women can also opt to induce labor or to receive an abortion. In all three cases, the baby can be autopsied by request so that the parents know why the stillbirth occurred.

Attitudes about stillbirth are changing radically. Historically, when women experienced stillbirth, the baby was whisked away for burial, and the parents never had a chance to see their child. This approach is viewed as traumatic by many medical professionals today, and most hospitals and midwives now clean the baby and wrap it, just as they would with a normal birth, so that parents can spend some time with the baby before burial, to facilitate the grieving process.

If you know someone who has experienced a stillbirth, you may want to be aware that many people feel very isolated after the loss of a child. Encourage your acquaintance to talk about his or her emotions, if desired, and make sure to refer to the baby by name, rather than as an “it,” recognizing the legitimate grief of the parents over the loss of their child.

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