A stillbirth is a baby born dead after 24 completed weeks of pregnancy.
If the baby dies before 24 completed weeks, it is known as a miscarriage or late foetal loss.
Stillbirth is more common than many people think. There are around 4,000 stillbirths every year in the UK and 1 in every 200 births ends in a stillbirth. Eleven babies are stillborn every day in the UK, making stillbirth 15 times more common than cot death.
What causes stillbirth?
Around two-thirds of stillbirths are linked to placental complications. This means that for some reason the placenta (the organ that links the baby's blood supply to the mother's and nourishes the baby in the womb) is not functioning properly.
About 10% of stillborn babies have some kind of congenital abnormality. A small percentage of stillbirths are caused by problems with the mother's health, for example pre-eclampsia, or other problems, including cord accidents and infections.
Read more about causes of stillbirth.
What happens when a death is suspected?
If it's suspected that your baby may have died during your pregnancy, cardiotocography (CTG) or an ultrasound scan can be used to check if your baby's heart has stopped.
If your baby's death is confirmed and there is no immediate risk to your health, you will usually be given time to think about what you want to do next.
You may be able to choose whether you would like to wait for labour to begin naturally, or if you want it to be started with medication (induced).
If your health is at risk, the baby may need to be delivered as soon as possible.
It is rare for a stillborn baby to be delivered by caesarean section.
Read more about how stillbirths happen.
After a stillbirth
After a stillbirth, many parents want to see and hold their baby. You may also wish to give your baby a name and create memories by taking photographs or a lock of hair, for example. It is completely up to you what you want to do.
Finding out why a stillbirth has happened can be helpful if you want to get pregnant in the future, so you will be offered tests to try to find out why your baby died.
You will also be offered an opportunity to discuss having a post-mortem examination of your baby. A post-mortem will not be done without your consent.
By law, all stillborn babies have to be formally registered. In England and Wales, this must be done within 42 days of your baby's birth.
A senior doctor will discuss the results of the post-mortem (if you had one) and any other tests in a follow-up appointment several weeks after the birth. You may also want to discuss any possible effects on future pregnancies.
Read more about what happens after a stillbirth.
Help and support
Stillbirth and late miscarriage can be devastating for the parents of the baby, and also affect wider family members, including children and friends.
You may find it helpful to discuss your feelings with your GP, community midwife or health visitor, or with other parents who have lost a baby.
There are many support groups in the UK for bereaved parents and their families. Our directory can help you find bereavement support services in your area.
Some of these groups are run by parents who have experienced stillbirth, or by healthcare professionals, such as baby loss support workers or specialist midwives.
Read more about stillbirth support and coping with stillbirth.
Can stillbirths be prevented?
Not all stillbirths can be prevented. However, there are some things you can do to reduce your risk of having a stillbirth, such as:
Read more about preventing stillbirth.
Sands, the Stillbirth and neonatal death charity, provides support for anyone affected by the death of a baby. The charity runs a helpline, provides information and support literature, and funds research into the causes of stillbirth.
You can call the Sands confidential helpline on 020 7436 5881, or you can email firstname.lastname@example.org. The helpline is open from 9.30am-5.30pm, Monday to Friday. It is also open later on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, from 6pm-10pm. You may want to visit the Sands website for information for bereaved parents.
Some babies die before they're born or soon after birth. Find out where you can get support
Page last reviewed: 22/02/2013
Next review due: 22/02/2015