Understanding Stillbirth: Causes, Symptoms, and Prevention

Understanding Stillbirth: Causes, Symptoms, and Prevention

Dealing with a loss of a child is undoubtedly one of the most difficult things. It can be unexpected and is devastating for the mother and family. Understanding ahead of time stillbirth and how it differs from miscarriage is important but difficult. In this piece, we will talk about what it is, why it happens, how to spot symptoms, as well as possible prevention. 

While it may be difficult to imagine continuing, being prepared increases the odds of avoiding stillbirth altogether. 

What is Stillbirth?

Stillbirth is the event in which you lose your baby during pregnancy or delivery. It differs from a miscarriage in the way that after a certain number of weeks in your pregnancy, the terminology changes from miscarriage to stillbirth. 

After week 20 if a mother loses her child, it is considered to be a stillbirth. Stillbirth can be divided up into three different timeline categories. 

  • Early Stillbirth: This occurs between week 20 and week 27.
  • Late Stillbirth: This occurs between week 28 and week 36.
  • Term Stillbirth: This occurs after 37 weeks. 

Stillbirth Symptoms

Stillbirth Symptoms

Understanding the symptoms of stillbirth is different from the possible causes. These are the factors that indicate a stillbirth has occurred or there is an issue with your baby. Some symptoms may be similar to other potential health problems but do not mean you have had a stillbirth. 

If symptoms arise at all it is best to immediately call your doctor or go to the emergency room. 

The Baby Stops Kicking

You will start to feel your baby kicking and moving between 16 and 24 weeks. If you start to feel your baby move around and kick and suddenly don’t feel it anymore, this may be a symptom of stillbirth. You should check with your doctor after noticing this. 

Bleeding or Spotting

Bleeding and spotting is difficult because it can be linked to several other health complications like Placenta Previa. This is when the placenta is covering your cervix. However, any bleeding should be followed up with a call or visit to the emergency room because it is a symptom in some cases of stillbirth. 

No Fetal Heartbeat

A doctor will use a stethoscope to check on the child’s heartbeat. If he cannot hear the child’s heartbeat, he may go right to an ultrasound to check for fetal movement and get a closer look at what is going on. 

No Movement on Ultrasound

A stillbirth is diagnosed ultimately by ultrasound with the doctor checking for a fetal heartbeat and fetal movement. 

What Can Cause A Stillbirth?

 What Can Cause A Stillbirth?

While 1 in 3 stillbirths go unexplained several leading causes can be examined after a stillbirth occurs. Most revolve around health-related issues with the mother and/or baby. 

Knowing the cause for a stillbirth is an important part of the grieving process for the parents but also from a medical standpoint important for the doctors. 

Placenta or Umbilical Cord Problems

The placenta and umbilical cord play a vital role in supplying your baby with oxygen, blood, and food. If anything were to go wrong with either of those and the baby wasn’t able to have access to any of the three suppliers this could lead to complications and stillbirth. 


This is when the mother experiences high blood pressure and swelling. This is not good for the mother or baby and a doctor may prescribe medication to help your blood pressure in the process. If it goes untreated it could result in a stillbirth. 


Mothers with Lupus have a very high risk of having a stillbirth. 

Blood Clotting

Blood clotting disorders that a mother may have had in the past or currently are considered to be high-risk pregnancies and are much more likely to experience a stillbirth than a mother without these preexisting conditions. 

Smoking, Drinking, or Drugs

Lifestyle choices that put risk to the mother and the baby can result in a stillbirth. Drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes, experimenting with drugs and other lifestyle choices can cause birth defects or complications. Smoking for example has links to placenta previa which can cause complications of its own. 

Birth Defects

Birth defects as a result of a health complication that was preexisting or picked up during pregnancy can ultimately lead to the death of the baby. It is said If there are one or more birth defects present this can be the cause of 25 percent of stillbirths. This likely can’t be determined without an autopsy of the baby. 


Infections can also be the result of a stillbirth especially if acquired between the 24th week and the 27th week. The happens if a bacterial infection travels vaginally and through to the womb. Usually, the mucus plug is meant to block this from happening. 


Trauma such as falling or a car crash is a non-medical reason for the stillbirth of a baby. 

Can Stillbirth Be Prevented?

Certain aspects such as health complications that exist before being pregnant must be managed by the doctor as this increases the baby’s chance of a stillbirth. Things such as lifestyle choices are always important to take seriously. This is controllable. 

At the end of the day, a stillbirth may be inevitable but there are certain things you can do to lower your chances of experiencing one. 

Stillbirth Treatment

Going through the experience of stillbirth is both physically and mentally very hard for the mother and a partner if they are in the picture. The recovery can take some time and is dependent on each individual,


If you are far along in your pregnancy and are experiencing what is considered to be a term stillbirth the doctor may wait until you go into labor naturally or induce pregnancy. This is called induction which may mean the use of medication to start labor. If it is earlier than term stillbirth a doctor may dilate your cervix and perform an evacuation. 

Mental Recovery

This is a devastating loss and can take quite a lot of time to recover from. It is normal to experience a range of emotions and each woman handles things differently and in her way. 

You may experience:

  • Moderate to severe depression
  • A sudden loss of interest in doing things
  • Loss of desire to eat
  • Irregular sleep
  • Feeling of isolation

If you experience these symptoms, it is important to call your doctor. Getting help through a therapist is an important process to go through for many people. 

Stillbirth Risk Factors

Stillbirth Risk Factors

While stillbirth is sometimes not preventable there are certain factors and risks for women of a certain age and different characteristics.  

Being Overweight

Being overweight and not having a healthier lifestyle increases your chance of having a stillbirth. This doesn’t mean a few extra pounds over your ideal weight. This is being at a very unhealthy weight and considered to be obsessed. This increases the stress on the body when delivering. 


There is a greater chance of having a stillbirth when you are carrying multiples. This is also because the stress is much higher on the body when delivering. It is extra important to maintain a lifestyle when feeding for two or more. 


Even smoking pregnancy can increase your odds of having a stillbirth. Research shows those smoking cigarettes in the three months before becoming pregnant increases the chance of having a stillbirth by 1.5 percent. 

Having Diabetes or AB Blood Type 

Women with diabetes have a much riskier pregnancy. Their odds of having a stillbirth are five times more likely than women who don’t. While undetermined why AB blood type is also a high-risk quality for women who are pregnant. 

Coping with Stillbirth

Coping with stillbirth is very difficult and looks different for everyone. Some women experience short-term memory loss as a way of coping with the grief while others feel like they can’t make daily decisions. 

Avenues that parents have taken to find comfort and deal with grief include:

Working with a Social Worker

Social workers are almost immediately provided to a family should they want one. They can help the family understand what the process looks like and normalize feelings. They may provide additional resources or lead you to some of the other options listed below. Social workers are different from counselors as counselors may specialize in one set of problems while a social worker has a much broader range of issues they may attack. 

Using Religion or Spirituality to Find Comfort

Right after labor if your family is religious a pastor/priest or other church officials of your denomination may come in and say a prayer and lead you through this difficult time. After this moment some couples continue to work with their pastor to understand and get through this very difficult time. This can be very comforting using the words of their God or spiritual understanding in coping with the loss of their child. 

It’s important to note that you don’t have to be a member of a denomination or church to have spiritual or services be provided. Some parents discover religion and faith for the first time in these moments as a volunteer church official introduces himself to the family for the first time. While you may prefer to have someone you know, it’s not a necessity to receive help through this option. 

Dealing Specifically with a Grief Counselor

A mother may move on from a social worker and start working with a therapist or a family therapist. Because the death of a stillborn is likely to affect both parents their coping mechanisms may not be conducive to healing together. Sometimes men bury their heads and go towards staying busy where women may need more comfort and emotional support from their partner. A specific grief counselor or a therapist is a more long-term solution that can dedicate more time to the healing of the mother or the family altogether. 

Taking Part in Group Conversations Similar to a Recovery Group 

Possibly right away or at a later time in the mother’s recovery, a therapist may suggest that a recovery group is a good idea. Recovery groups put those in a similar situation in the same boat together and allow them to listen to another and their process. It can be cathartic for women to relate to each other and let their stories be told. 

One of the reasons this is such a great practice is because often a mother can feel isolated like no one understands what she just went through. It is partially true because her partner if male really can’t understand what her body went through. Other women who have gone through the same thing will have a better time relating and having a conversation about what happened. Groups like this provide comfort just from developing bonds over the healing process. 

While these are some of the more common practices there are many more options that a provider can help navigate a grieving family through. 


Even reading this is hard to think about or process. But it is important to always prepare for the worst without expecting it. Understanding certain risk factors and causes of stillbirth can help reduce the risk of experiencing one. It’s also important to note that some stillbirths are simply unavoidable and also not always understandable. Only 1 in 3 stillbirths can be determined by a cause. 

It may be an important part of the grieving process for parents to determine the cause if they can. Others may not want to know. This is because the grieving process for every individual is different. This sometimes can cause rifts in relationships because it can be difficult to have a cohesive situation where both parents are grieving in ways that don’t work for one another. That’s why working with a counselor, therapist, or even attending recovery groups can be very useful in working through this very difficult time. 

If you start feeling symptoms of a stillbirth it is important to content your doctor immediately. While everything may be fine it is important to get it checked out.