Frequently asked questions about stillbirth

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What is the definition of stillbirth?

Stillbirth is when a baby has no signs of life after a woman’s 20th week of pregnancy. Before 20 weeks it is known as a miscarriage.

How frequent is stillbirth?

In Australia, there are around 6 babies stillborn each day (affecting around 2,200 families each year). That’s a rate of about 7.4 stillbirths for every 1,000 babies born or 1 in every 135 women who reach 20 weeks’ of pregnancy.

For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, and women from other disadvantaged groups, this risk is often doubled.

What is the impact on parents and families?

Parents who have had a stillborn baby face an increased risk of anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress, and suicidal thoughts.

The community’s fears and stigma around stillbirth intensifies parents’ distress and often makes them feel more isolated in their grief. Research has shown that up to 50% of bereaved parents in Australia and New Zealand feel unable to talk about their stillborn baby because it makes people feel uncomfortable.

Many parents feel the death of their baby is not recognised as the same as the death of an older child and may blame themselves.

What are the causes of stillbirth?

The major causes of stillbirth in Australia are infection, maternal conditions, haemorrhage, spontaneous preterm birth, and congenital abnormality.

Around one-quarter of stillbirths remain unexplained (and up to half of stillbirths occur near full-term). The lack of a known cause adds to parents’ distress, as they struggle to understand “what went wrong” and “will it happen again” in a subsequent pregnancy.

Many stillbirths are not properly investigated, resulting in possible missed diagnoses. In up to one-third of stillbirths, the quality of care provided is a contributing factor to the death.

Who is at greater risk of stillbirth?

Some women have a higher chance of having a stillborn baby because of their own health issues such as smoking, diabetes, hypertension, being overweight or obese. Other things which may put you at an increased risk include being over 35 years of age, having had a previous stillbirth, and being over 41 weeks pregnant.

When the placenta isn’t working properly to give the baby the nutrition it needs, or the baby isn’t growing as expected, this can also put them at higher risk of stillbirth.

Recent research from around the world has also shown that women who go to sleep lying on their back (sometimes called the supine position) also have an increased risk of stillbirth in late-pregnancy.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women have a higher rate of stillbirth than the rest of the population. Some other ethnicities also have a higher rate of stillbirth, including women from the Pacific Islands, Africa and South Asia (India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bangladesh).