How is stillbirth diagnosed?

A pregnant mother may suspect stillbirth if she stops feeling the fetus kick or make other active movements inside her womb. But not feeling movement does not mean stillbirth in all cases.1

Before birth, the only way to know for sure whether a stillbirth has occurred is to determine if the fetus’s heart is beating. This is often done using ultrasound,2 a type of imaging that projects harmless sound waves through the mother’s body to create an image.

After birth, the infant is considered stillborn if he or she has “no signs of life,” which means the infant:3

  • Is not breathing
  • Has no heartbeat
  • Has no pulsations in the umbilical cord, and
  • Does not make voluntary movements


  1. Norwitz, E., & Schorge, J. (2010). Obstetrics and gynecology at a glance – 3rd ed. Chichester, UK: John Wiley & Sons.
  2. Lindsey, J. L., Sultani, S. L., & Hugin, M. P. (2012). Evaluation of fetal death. Retrieved July 31, 2013, from external link
  3. Kowaleski, J. (1997). State definitions and reporting requirements for live births, fetal deaths, and induced terminations of pregnancy – 1997 ed. Hyattsville, Maryland: National Center for Health Statistics.
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