Health knowledge and news provided by doctors.

What is a Stillbirth: Complete Explanation

Armen Hareyan's picture

Stillbirth is the death of a baby after the 20th week of pregnancy, but before delivery. The baby may have died in the uterus weeks or hours before labor, or during labor.

How common are stillbirths?

About one in every 150 births, or 1% of all births, is a stillbirth.

What causes stillbirths?

The three major causes of stillbirths are:

Problems with the placenta and/or umbilical cord. Because the fetus gets its blood, oxygen and nutrients through the placenta and umbilical cord, problems in either will interfere with fetal development.

Maternal medical conditions and lifestyle choices. Certain illnesses in the mother, or their treatments, sometimes cause stillbirths. Some of these conditions include chronic hypertension (high blood pressure), preeclampsia, diabetes, lupus, heart or thyroid disease and certain viral or bacterial infections. Older mothers are usually at increased risk for these conditions, as well as for stillbirths. Smoking, drinking alcohol, and using certain recreational drugs during pregnancy are also associated with higher rates of stillbirth.

Birth defects. In about one-fourth of stillborn babies, one or more birth defects are responsible for the death. Many are found only after a thorough examination of the baby and an autopsy.

Unfortunately, more than half of stillbirths are unexplained, which only adds to parents' grief.

What happens after a stillborn baby is delivered?

You will be able to hold your baby, and your health care providers will allow you as much time as you need to spend with your child. You may feel uncomfortable with this idea, but it will be a cherished moment at a later time.

Keep and ask for any mementos and keepsakes of your child such as the I.D. bracelet, blanket, or a lock of your child's hair, and take as many pictures as possible. As with holding your baby, this may also be uncomfortable but it may be a cherished possession at a later time and may help you during your grieving process. Most hospitals will issue the family a birth certificate, but make sure you ask so you are sure to get one, and request that it include the baby's hand and footprints.

Test and examinations

The doctor will carefully examine the baby and placenta to check for abnormalities, and parents may be asked to consent to an autopsy and other studies. In most cases, a blood sample will be taken from the baby and tested for chromosomal abnormalities.

The doctor will also review medical records and the circumstances surrounding the stillbirth.

How can I find out what caused my baby to be stillborn?

Pending your consent, an internal examination (autopsy) can be performed to determine the cause of your baby's death. An autopsy is a surgical procedure performed by a skilled pathologist. Incisions are made to avoid any disfigurement. The incisions are surgically repaired in the usual way. A doctor can explain the procedure in more detail. You have the right to limit the autopsy to eliminate any incisions on your baby that are not comfortable for you (for instance, you can give instructions that no incisions are to be made on the baby's head). Be sure to write these requests on the autopsy permission form.

Some hospitals do not perform their own autopsies, so your baby may have to be transported to another hospital. Be sure you feel comfortable about where your child is being taken.

You have the right to deny an autopsy, if this is your wish.

An autopsy is legally required when:

* A baby has died within 24 hours of a surgical operation
* A doctor cannot certify the cause of death
* A baby has lived (defined as "drawing breath") and died suddenly

Follow eMaxHealth on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook.
Please, click to subscribe to our Youtube Channel to be notified about upcoming health and food tips.

What physical symptoms will the mother have after delivering a stillborn baby?

If you have heavy bleeding, fever, chills or pain, contact your health care provider right away. These may be signs of an infection.

After the delivery of the placenta, the milk-producing hormones will be activated. Please talk to your health care provider about your options to stop lactation.

Can a stillbirth be prevented?

Usually a stillbirth cannot be prevented and often occurs because the baby's development was not normal.

Sometimes, treatment of a mother's illness can improve the chances for a successful pregnancy.

Is a funeral necessary?

After the death of your baby, one of the first decisions you will be faced with is whether or not you need to arrange a funeral.

The type of arrangements you make may play an important role in the grieving process. It is a decision that only you and your partner can reach together. You may find that you need time to make your decisions and arrangements. It is quite common for families to take up to a week (and sometimes longer) to make arrangements. This is okay.

No matter what your choice is, you have the right to change your mind be sure you ask whoever is carrying out your arrangements just how long you have to make any changes.

How to communicate with your other children?

You may find your surviving children are a comfort, a worry or just too hard to deal with. These are normal reactions. Take time to grieve and say goodbye to the child you lost. You will eventually feel more normal feelings for your living children, and the bond you have with them may become even stronger because of this experience.

No matter how much you may want to shelter your children from pain, they can sense the emotion around them. Honesty is the best way to help your children cope with this painful experience. Children have a different understanding of death at different developmental stages. Help them to understand as much as they are able, but don't forget that they usually interpret what they're told very literally.

Can I get pregnant after I've delivered a stillborn baby?

Yes. Most women who deliver stillborn babies have subsequent normal pregnancies and births. If the stillbirth was caused by a malformation or umbilical cord problem, the chances of recurrence in a subsequent pregnancy are minimal. If the cause was a chronic maternal illness or a genetic disorder, the risk is somewhat higher. On average, the chance that a woman's next pregnancy will result in stillbirth is about 3%, which means the majority of post-stillbirth pregnancies result in healthy births.

Taking time to heal both physically and emotionally after delivering a stillborn baby is important. Regardless of the stage of pregnancy during which your loss occurred, you are still a mother or father and the life you nurtured was real. Above all, don't blame yourself. Give yourself time to grieve and accept your loss. Counseling is available to help you cope. Pregnancy loss support groups may also be a valuable resource to you and your partner. Ask your health care provider for more information about counseling and support groups.

Discuss the timing of your next pregnancy with your health care provider to ensure that you are physically ready to begin a new pregnancy. Some health care providers recommend waiting a certain amount of time (from 6 months to 1 year) before trying to conceive again. Some studies have shown that women who wait for at least one year to conceive may have less depression and anxiety during a subsequent pregnancy.

Statistics show that about 60% of couples take up to 6 months to conceive and another 30% take up to 12 months after delivery of a stillborn baby. Don't be surprised if things don't happen quickly.


This information is provided by the Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition. For additional written health information, please contact the Health Information Center at the Cleveland Clinic (216) 444-3771 or toll-free (800) 223-2273 extension 43771 or visit Cleveland Clinic. This document was last reviewed on: 9/9/2002

The Cleveland Clinic
9500 Euclid Avenue, Cleveland, OH
This page is updated on May 13, 2013.

Updated: 10/8/2015



I was 8 1/2 months pregnant and suddenly fainted. I thought i just needed to lay down i thought i was okay, apparently i was wrong. I fainted 2 more times and started to hemorrhage and go in and out of consciousness. I was rushed to hospital to find out there was no fetal heart movement. I was devastated. I am the 1% this happens to. The hospital tried to get me to deliver i refused and we did emergency c-section. my placenta removed from my uterus and it is the most horrible thing ever. I don't wish this on anyone
my baby passed may the 15 2011 i realy dont know what ahppend and i blame myself becoues i was her mom and i couldent protect her i dident wont a altopsey becoues someone doing that to her i wouldent able to face at the moment now i feel so gelty for that i wish i would have so maby my mind would be at ease a little i miss her so much me and her dad cant get along now and i feel like were sleping away he blames me for what happend i wish so much she was stell here its killing me i love her and always will shes my little andgel maci,i love u baby girl
Last Wednesday I went to my normal dr appointment and was supposed to have my gestational diabetes test(routine test). I was laying there laughing with the nurse because we thought my precious girl was already acting as difficult as I can be at times. We heard the heart beating but she just couldnt get a good read. So she sent me back to ultrasound. Again I was laughing it off and talking when the ultrasound tech asked when was the last time I felt her move. I told her about an hour ago. When she said that my heart dropped I knew where she was going with that. I asked are you sure and she there is no heartbeat. I called my husband immediately and we went over to the hospital and was induced. I prayed it was a bad dream. This kind of thing doesnt happen. After 19 hours of labor I finally had my baby girl Hadley Lane at 24 weeks and 3 days. She was 1 lb and 8oz and 13 inches long. Her cord had a knot and her little body was deprived of her only lifelineThe next day I was discharged from the hospital on a Fri and had a funeral for her on Sat. This is the hardest thing I have ever been through. Though I will never understand I will always love my Hadley Lane.
I lost my daughter Lanayah Grace Fernandez, June 24th 2011. I didn't know how hard it was losing something soo precious. She was the most beautiful thing. Losing her at 6 months and knowing she would be in my arms today or any day is soo hard to deal with. I still ask myself what did i do wrong? I tried my absolute best with everything. Knowing that I lost my first daughter I'm just soso scared it'll happen again. I wantto know what that feeling is having your very first baby and holding her in your arms. And knowing I can't hold or kiss her like all the other mommys and daddys it's hard to deal with. My love goes out too all the moms and dads. Rest In Peace Lanayah Grace Fernandez Mommy and Daddy love you Princess.
i had a little boy Remington Allen Jackson-Reed october 3 2011 and im 17 years old and every day it hurts to see newborns but i want other children i just hope that i will be able to have children later in life so i can tell them about Remington and how precious he was to me
I was 39wks 6days when Evan was born a stillbirth there was no signs of distress my pregnancy was going great. 4 days prior to this I'd been to the dr and everything was fine. On the tuesday there was decreased movement so I went in for a nst test, where they couldnt find his heartbeat they ordered up the u/s machine and told me to call my husband. He came and they did the u/s and as they thought no heartbeat. They said to come back the next day and they would induce me but I went into labour and delivered Evan 15hrs later, he was the most beautiful thing id ever seen so perfect . They said that it looked like he had passed away 1or2 days before birth and they dont know why we had an autopsey done but ive been told that I wont find out anything for 4-6months and that only 66% of ppl find out anything. Rip my Evan angel Sept,28 2011
Hello, I read your article. I'm sorry for your loss. My son died Nov. 21, 2011. He was full term. During labour they lost his heartbeat and by the time my wife had an emergency C-section he had passed away. We had a autopsey completed but still have not heard anything. I think about Justin every day, I don't think it's something we will ever be able to fully understand or get over. We just recently started taking his nursery apart, for now. I just wanted you to know your not alone. [email protected]
Hello again, my wifes and I email is [email protected] Chris
I had a still birth when I was 16 years old and 38 weeks. I gave birth to a beautiful baby girl 6 pounds four ounces I went into labor normally and had no idea that their was something wrong when she wad born she wasnt breathing and had no heart beat the doctors said she must have died in the birthing canal because she had a heart beat up intil then. It was the most traumayizing thing ive ever been through I wish my little angel were here now she would have been four on june 28. Mommy loves you Audrina May Watts
IV been told my baby isn't going to survive but have been given next to no information on what happens next or funeral options if there R ne im 21 weeks pls CB some help as I cnt think straight n hospital are awful
We suffered a stillbirth a week before the due date, losing our only son so far. I have to disagree with this phrase: "Unfortunately, more than half of stillbirths are unexplained, which only adds to parents' grief." We chose not to seek the answer to why it happened. We remembered an analogy that if you pick apart a flower to understand it better, it loses its beauty. Despite the pain, there was great beauty in my son's birth, and there was no point in probing, poking, and attempting to understand. We know people who have asked God why their tragedy happened, and fifteen years later found out that they'd been spared a whole lot of anxiety that they would have gone through if they'd known what actually happened. In this specific case it was a problem that happens in adolescence, and it was after their other kids had made it to adulthood that they learned about the condition that killed their daughter. If they'd known, they would have been terrified for the lives of their other children for years! I don't know how anyone makes it through this type of situation without God.