Introduction 

A stillbirth is a baby born dead after 24 completed weeks of pregnancy.

If the baby dies before 24 completed weeks, it's known as a miscarriage or late foetal loss.

Stillbirth is more common than many people think. There are more than 3,600 stillbirths every year in the UK, and one in every 200 births ends in a stillbirth. Eleven babies are stillborn every day in the UK, making it 15 times more common than cot death.

What causes stillbirth?

Around a half of all 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) isn't functioning properly.

About 10% of stillborn babies have some kind of birth defect that contributed to their death. 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 baby dies in the womb?

If it's suspected that your baby may have died during your pregnancy, a handheld Doppler device or an ultrasound scan can be used to check your baby's heartbeat.

If your baby has died and there's no immediate risk to your health, you'll 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's rare for a stillborn baby to be delivered by caesarean section.

At this stage, it's common for parents to ask why their baby died. Those caring for you may give you some basic information about tests to try to find out why your baby died.

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. It's completely up to you what you want to do. Decisions about what to do are very personal and there’s no right or wrong way to respond.

Finding out why a stillbirth has happened can be helpful with the grieving process and provide information if you want to get pregnant in the future, so you'll be offered tests to try to find out why your baby died.

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 test results and post-mortem (if you decided to have one) during 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 baby's parents, and they can 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've lost a baby.

There are many support groups in the UK for bereaved parents and their families. Find bereavement support services in your area.

Some of these groups are run by parents who've 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.




Support groups

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 helpline@uk-sands.org. The helpline is open from 9.30am-5.30pm, Monday to Friday. It's also open later on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, from 6pm-10pm.

Page last reviewed: 03/02/2015

Next review due: 03/02/2017