Reducing the risk of stillbirth

The death of a baby at any stage of pregnancy can be a very sad and distressing time, but when it occurs late in a pregnancy it is particularly difficult.

On this page:

What is a stillbirth?

Stillbirth is the term used for the death of a baby after 20 weeks of pregnancy and before or during birth.

In Australia, one in every 135 pregnancies that reach 20 weeks will end with a stillborn child. For some women, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and other disadvantaged groups, the risk of having a stillborn baby is higher. 

A number of issues increase your risk of stillbirth, these include:

  • smoking
  • diabetes
  • high blood pressure
  • being overweight or obese
  • previously having had a stillbirth
  • being over 35 years of age
  • being over 41 weeks pregnant

What causes a stillbirth?

There can be a number of reasons why a baby is stillborn however sometimes a cause cannot be found. In Australia, the major causes of stillbirth are infection, the health of the mother, bleeding, a premature labour that cannot be stopped or an abnormality with the developing baby. 

Around one-quarter of stillbirths cannot be explained and up to half of stillbirths happen close to full-term. 

How to reduce your risk of a stillbirth

There are no reliable screening tests to identify all babies that are at risk of stillbirth but there are some steps you can take to reduce the risk to you and your baby.  Your pregnancy care team can support you with this.

Things you can do

Get help to stop smoking

Smoking in pregnancy is one of the main causes of stillbirth. In Australia, about 1 in 10 pregnant women smoke. By smoking during pregnancy, you increase the risk of miscarriage or stillbirth, premature birth, Sudden Unexplained Death in Infancy (SUDI including SIDS), low birth weight and breathing problems. 

If you are a smoker, it’s best not to smoke during your pregnancy. Talk with your midwife or doctor about stopping. Quitting early in the pregnancy is best but stopping at any time during the pregnancy will benefit you and your baby.  

The Safer Baby website includes more information about how quitting smoking can reduce your risk of stillbirth. 

Have regular checks of your baby’s growth

Throughout your pregnancy, your midwife or doctor will regularly check your baby’s growth.

By going to all of your appointments, your midwife or doctor can track your baby’s growth and development, identify any concerns and monitor or respond to them as necessary. 

Be aware of your baby’s movements

Every baby is different and it is important for you to get to know your baby’s movements during your pregnancy. You will usually start to feel your baby move between 16 and 20 weeks. You may feel a kick, stretch, roll or even hiccups. By 24 weeks most babies develop a pattern of movement.

Being aware of your baby's movement patterns each day is a good habit to get into. The Movements Matter website has more information about this.

If you are concerned about any change in your baby’s movements contact your midwife or doctor immediately. 

Go to sleep on your side

Research shows that from 28 weeks of pregnancy there is a link between the position that a mother goes to sleep in and stillbirth. The going-to-sleep position is the one you hold longest during the night.

If you are pregnant, it is recommended that you settle into sleep on your side. Do this when you go to sleep, return to sleep after waking and when taking any naps. You don’t need to worry if you wake up on your back, just roll over and go back to sleep on your side.

The Safer Baby website includes more information about going to sleep on your side. You might also like to watch this short video.

Talk with your midwife or doctor about the timing of your baby’s birth

Around 34-36 weeks your midwife or doctor will talk with you about the timing of your baby’s birth. If your pregnancy is continuing with no issues then birth close to 40 weeks is best, however, if there are health concerns for you or your baby, your care team will discuss these with you.

There can be benefits and risks associated with decisions about the timing of your baby’s birth, so it is important for you and your midwife or doctor to discuss these and consider what is safe for you and your baby. 

Even the last few weeks of your pregnancy are important, as your baby continues to grow and develop. The Every Week Counts website has more information about a baby's health and development in the last few weeks of pregnancy. 

The Safer Baby Collaborative

The Women's is one of several maternity services working together as part of the Safer Baby Collaborative to reduce the rates of stillbirth. By sharing the knowledge gained from this collaborative we can help you to understand and manage the risk factors for stillbirth.
 


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Disclaimer

The Women’s does not accept any liability to any person for the information or advice (or use of such information or advice) which is provided on the Website or incorporated into it by reference. The Women’s provide this information on the understanding that all persons accessing it take responsibility for assessing its relevance and accuracy. Women are encouraged to discuss their health needs with a health practitioner. If you have concerns about your health, you should seek advice from your health care provider or if you require urgent care you should go to the nearest Emergency Dept.