How is stillbirth diagnosed?

Before delivery, the only way to diagnose a stillbirth is to determine if the fetus’s heart is beating. Providers often use ultrasound,1 a type of imaging that projects harmless sound waves through the pregnant person’s body to create an image, to look for the fetal heartbeat.

After labor and delivery, caregivers look for the following “signs of life”2:

  • Breathing
  • Heartbeat
  • Pulsations in the umbilical cord
  • Voluntary movements

If one or more of these signs are not present, life-saving measures will be taken, such as neonatal resuscitation methods. If these measures are not successful, the situation may be diagnosed as a stillbirth.

Fetal Movement Monitoring

In some cases, health care providers may recommend that pregnant people keep track of feelings of fetal movements or kicks. It is important to note, however, that the absence of feelings of fetal movement does not mean stillbirth has occurred in all cases.3 In some first-time pregnancies, for example, movement is difficult to detect.

The Count the Kicks campaign external link aims to raise awareness about fetal movement and possible prevention of stillbirth. They offer an app, educational information, and data for providers about counting fetal kicks and movements.


  1. Ross, M. G. (2023). Evaluation of fetal death. Medscape. Retrieved August 23, 2023, from external link
  2. National Center for Health Statistics. (1997). State definitions and reporting requirements for live births, fetal deaths, and induced terminations of pregnancy. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved August 23, 2023, from (PDF 539 KB)
  3. Norwitz, E., & Schorge, J. (2010). Obstetrics and gynecology at a glance – 3rd ed. Chichester, UK: John Wiley & Sons.
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