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Fetal death refers to the spontaneous intrauterine death of a fetus at any time during pregnancy. Fetal deaths later in pregnancy (at 20 weeks of gestation or more) are also sometimes referred to as stillbirths. This occurs in about one in 160 pregnancies. Most stillbirths occur before labor begins, while the remainder occur during labor and delivery. The pregnant woman may suspect that something is wrong if the fetus suddenly stops moving around and kicking.

After delivery, the fetus, placenta and umbilical cord are examined to help determine why the fetus died. The provider may recommend an autopsy, and/or tests to diagnose common chromosomal problems, specific disorders or various infections. In up to half of all cases, the cause of stillbirth cannot be determined. However, information gathered from these tests often is useful in helping couples plan a future pregnancy. Results of such tests may also reveal liability on the part of the prentatal obstetrician or member of the attending delivery room team.

If a stillbirth can be traced to medical malpractice, the birth injury lawyers of Eisbrouch Marsh are prepared to help grieving families find legal justice for their loss.

Causes of fetal death

There are a number of known causes of stillbirth. Sometimes more than one may contribute to the baby’s death.

Common causes of stillbirth include:

  • Birth defects: About 15 to 20 percent of stillborn babies have one or more birth defects. At least 20 percent of these have chromosomal disorders, such as Down syndrome. Others have other birth defects resulting from genetic, environmental or unknown causes.
  • Placental problems: Placental problems cause about 25 percent of stillbirths. One of the most common placental problems is placental abruption. In this condition, the placenta peels away, partly to almost completely, from the uterine wall before delivery. It results in heavy bleeding that can threaten the life of mother and baby. Sometimes it can cause the fetus to die from lack of oxygen. Women who smoke cigarettes or use cocaine during pregnancy are at increased risk of placental abruption,
  • Poor fetal growth: Fetuses who are growing too slowly are at increased risk of stillbirth. About 40 percent of stillborn babies have poor growth. Women who smoke cigarettes or have high blood pressure are at increased risk of having a baby that grows too slowly,
  • Infections: Infections involving the mother, fetus or placenta appear to cause about 10 to 25 percent of stillbirths. Infections are an important cause of fetal deaths before 28 weeks of pregnancy. Some infections may cause no symptoms in the pregnant woman. These include genital and urinary tract infections and certain viruses, such as fifth disease (parvovirus infection). These infections may go undiagnosed until they cause serious complications, such as fetal death or preterm birth (before 37 completed weeks of pregnancy),
  • Chronic health conditions in the pregnant woman: About 10 percent of stillbirths are related to chronic health conditions in the mother, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, kidney disease and thrombophilias (blood clotting disorders). These conditions may contribute to poor fetal growth or placental abruption. Pregnancy-induced forms of high blood pressure (such as preeclampsia) also may increase the risk, especially when they recur in a second or later pregnancy. Women with high-risk pregnancies should be followed closely by their physicians.
  • Birth injury accidents: Accidents involving the umbilical cord may contribute to about 2 to 4 percent of stillbirths. These include a knot in the cord or abnormal placement of the cord into the placenta which deprives the fetus of oxygen. Doctors and hospitals now have established protocols for dealing with high-risk pregnancies and emergencies that develop during delivery. When a physician deviates from those standards, fails to follow up on a mother’s concern, misses signs of fetal stress, or makes a critical mistake during delivery, it may result in a fetal death.

Certain risk factors also are associated with stillbirth. Some of these include a maternal age over 35, maternal obesity, or multiple gestation (twins or more).

Reducing the risk of stillbirth

Women should have a preconception visit with their health care provider. This allows the provider to identify and treat conditions, such as diabetes and high blood pressure, before pregnancy to reduce the risks of problems during pregnancy. This visit also is a good time to discuss all prescription, over-the-counter and herbal medications with their provider because some medications can pose a risk to the fetus.

Obesity may contribute to a woman’s increased risk of stillbirth. Women who are obese should consider losing weight before they attempt to conceive. Their health care provider can discuss their ideal weight and how they can achieve it. A woman should never try to lose weight during pregnancy. However, women who are obese should not gain as much weight during pregnancy as women who are not overweight.

Learn about your rights

A birth injury lawyer from Eisbrouch Marsh can help grieving parents determine whether a member of the medical staff may have been to blame for the stillbirth of their baby. If you think medical negligence in the delivery room contributed to your baby’s death, contact the attorneys at Eisbrouch Marsh for an evaluation of your potential birth injury lawsuit. The consultation is free and there is never a fee unless we win your case.

  1. March of Dimes, Pregnancy Loss,

  2. CDC, National Vital Statistics Program, Fetal Deaths,

  3. National Institute of Health, Stillbirth,

  4. NHS, Stillbirth,