After a stillbirth, health care providers will try to determine why the fetus died and help the family cope with their loss.
Later on, if the family wants to try for another pregnancy, providers can help the mother understand and change any problems that might increase her risk of another stillbirth.
If health care providers determine that the fetus has died while it is still in the womb, the next step is to deliver it. In general, this does not have to happen right away. Some parents might need time to cope with the news of their loss or to make arrangements. Others might prefer to complete the process as soon as possible.1
Depending on how far along the pregnancy is and other considerations, health care providers usually will use one of these two methods to deliver the fetus:1
- Induction. Providers will give the mother medicine to start labor. This method is used more often later in pregnancy.
- Dilation and evacuation. In this surgical procedure, providers first help the woman’s cervix open, or dilate. After about a day, the cervix will have opened and providers give the woman a medicine to keep her from feeling pain. Then, they insert instruments through the vagina and cervix into the womb to remove the fetus, the placenta, and other pregnancy material. Dilation and evacuation is only an option in the second trimester.
After a stillbirth, it is important for providers to examine the body closely. Figuring out why the stillbirth occurred, if possible, can help providers and parents understand any risks that might affect future pregnancies.
Health care providers might examine a stillborn baby in three main ways:1
- Inspecting the exterior of the fetus, placenta, and tissues. First, providers will examine the body and the tissues that surrounded and nourished the fetus inside the womb. This examination can reveal problems that could have caused or contributed to the death. They may weigh and measure the body and placenta to look for any growth problems. The health care provider might also photograph certain parts of the body or the placenta to put in the medical record or to show to a specialist.
- Examining individual cells and genetic material. Health care providers may ask parents’ permission to take samples of tissues from the body, the fluid that surrounded it in the womb (amniotic fluid), the placenta, and the umbilical cord. A laboratory will examine these samples for problems with cells, chromosomes, and DNA that could have caused or contributed to the death.
- Autopsy. Health care providers may ask parents’ permission to do an autopsy. (If providers do not bring it up, parents can also ask for an autopsy.) An autopsy involves opening up parts of the body to look for problems with the brain, heart, or other organs.
If parents prefer not to do an autopsy, the provider might ask for permission to take X-rays or conduct another type of imaging that shows inside the body. Imaging can help find the cause of death.1
In many cases of stillbirth, there are no obvious risk factors. If there are factors that might increase the risk of another stillbirth in the future, and if the mother wants to have another child, she can work together with her providers to attempt to control the risks before getting pregnant again.1 Learn more about risk factors for stillbirth.
Losing a baby to stillbirth can be a difficult experience for a family. Health care providers may offer ways to help parents come to terms with the death. Providers may also refer parents to a support group, religious leader, or counselor for help.1 Read more about coping with grief after stillbirth.
- American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists Committee on Practice Bulletins—Obstetrics. (2009). ACOG Practice Bulletin No. 102: management of stillbirth. Obstetrics and Gynecology, 113(3), 748–761.