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Pregnancy and baby

Reducing the risk of stillbirth

Stillbirth is when a pregnancy which has gone beyond 24 weeks ends with the death of the baby before she or he is born. In 2013, 3,284 babies were stillborn in England and Wales, affecting around 1 in 200 pregnancies.

Not all the causes of stillbirth are currently known, but experience from other countries suggests that if pregnant women know the risk factors, the signs to look out for and when to seek help, this can reduce how often stillbirth happens.

Things you can do to reduce the risk of stillbirth

It's not possible to prevent every stillbirth. However, we do know that certain factors increase the risk and there are simple things you can do to reduce the risks.

Go to all your antenatal appointments

It is important not to miss any of your antenatal appointments. Some of the tests and measurements that can identify potential problems have to be done at specific times. Going to all your appointments will also mean your midwife can give you relevant information as your pregnancy progresses.

Find out about when you will have your antenatal appointments.

Eat healthily and keep active

Try to swap unhealthy foods for healthier options, and try to keep active. Being overweight or obese can increase the risk of problems in pregnancy. While pregnancy is not the time for a weight loss diet, you do not need to put on any extra kilos in pregnancy if you are already overweight.

Read about how to have a healthy diet in pregnancy and exercise in pregnancy.

Stop smoking

If you smoke, the best thing you can do is to stop. Stopping at any time in pregnancy will help, though the sooner the better. The NHS provides lots of support to help women stop smoking in pregnancy – your midwife, GP or pharmacist can advise you, and there will be a "stop smoking" programme you can join, which your midwife can direct you to.

Find out about stopping smoking in pregnancy.

Avoid alcohol in pregnancy

The safest way to ensure your baby is not damaged by alcohol is not to drink while you are pregnant. If you are finding it hard to stop drinking, ask for help from your midwife or GP.

If you do opt to have a drink, you should stick to one or two units of alcohol once or twice a week to minimise the risk to your baby.

Find out about alcohol and pregnancy, including how many units are in different types of drinks.

Tell your midwife about any drug use

If you use or have used street drugs (such as cannabis, ecstasy or heroin) or other substances, it is important to tell your midwife.

The more your midwife knows about your general health, the better she or he will be able to help you and your baby. Don't be afraid to share this information. It will be treated in confidence and only shared with other relevant professionals if the midwife thinks it is in the best interests of your baby.

Find out about illegal drugs and pregnancy. FRANK has information about the risks of "legal highs", which are not necessarily legal or safe.

Have the flu jab

Make sure you have the seasonal flu vaccination, which is available from the beginning of October each year. Pregnant women are more at risk from flu complications, such as bronchitis and pneumonia, than the general population and these complications can harm your baby.

Your midwife or GP will offer you the flu jab – it's free and safe to have at any stage of pregnancy. Women who have had the vaccine in pregnancy also pass some protection onto their babies, which lasts for the first few months of the baby’s life. 

Find out about the flu vaccination in pregnancy.

Avoid people who are ill

Wherever possible, you should avoid contact with people who have infectious illnesses, including diarrhoea, sickness and childhood illnesses such as chickenpox or parvovirus (slapped cheek).

If you have been or are in contact with someone with an infection, speak to your midwife or GP for advice.

Find out about the infections that might affect your pregnancy, and their signs and symptoms, so you can seek help from your midwife or GP if you become ill.

Practise good hygiene

Be strict about good hygiene wherever you are. This includes washing your hands, particularly before preparing food and after going to the toilet (or changing a nappy, if you already have children), and preparing and storing food safely.

Read about how to cook and prepare food safely, how to store food safely and how to use leftovers safely.

Avoid some foods in pregnancy

You should avoid some foods in pregnancy, as they have a higher risk of making you ill with infections such as listeria and salmonella. Get to know which foods to avoid while you are pregnant, including raw or undercooked meat, some cheeses, and unpasteurised milk.

When to get help from a midwife or doctor

Around 10% of stillbirths are due to conditions in the mother in pregnancy, including hypertensive (blood pressure) disorders, diabetes and obstetric cholestasis (a pregnancy-related liver condition).

If any of the following happen, you should seek help straight away by contacting your maternity unit. Do not wait until the next day – contact them now.

Your baby's movements have reduced

If you think your baby’s movements have reduced, slowed down or changed, then lie on your left side for an hour and concentrate on your baby’s movements. If you are still worried, call your maternity unit straight away. Don’t wait to see what happens.

You bleed from your vagina

This may indicate a problem. Read about bleeding from your vagina in pregnancy.

You have vaginal discharge that is not normal for you

If you have watery, clear or coloured discharge from the vagina that seems abnormal for you, contact your maternity unit. This could be your waters breaking or signs of an infection. Find out about vaginal discharge in pregnancy.

You get blurred vision, severe headache, swelling

These could be signs of pre-eclampsia. Although pre-eclampsia is usually mild, in some pregnancies it can lead to life-threatening problems for both mother and baby. Symptoms of pre-eclampsia include:

  • obvious swelling – especially of the hands and face or upper body
  • severe headache that does not go away – sometimes with vomiting
  • problems with vision, such as blurring, flashing lights, spots or difficulty in focussing
  • severe pain just below the ribs in the middle of your abdomen

Find out about pre-eclampsia and pregnancy-related high blood pressure

You have itching, particularly on your hands and feet

Call your maternity unit if you have itching (particularly on the hands and feet, but other areas of the body may be affected too), even if it is mild. Itching in pregnancy is normal for most women, but it can mean you have a liver disorder called intrahepatic cholestasis of pregnancy (ICP, also called obstetric cholestasis). If left untreated, ICP can lead to premature labour and increase the risk of stillbirth.

Find out about itching and intrahepatic cholestasis of pregnancy (obstetric cholestasis).


Page last reviewed: 23/03/2015

Next review due: 23/03/2017


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