Many people think that stillbirths happen because of a developmental or genetic problem that means the baby could not survive. In fact, this is the case for fewer than one in ten stillborn babies.  For as many as 6 in 10 stillborn babies, the cause of death is not known.

Placental problems

The placenta is the temporary organ that joins the woman and the baby, allowing nutrients and oxygen to pass to the baby and the baby’s waste products to pass back to the mother. Some stillbirths happen because the placenta doesn’t function properly. This may happen gradually, and it may not be picked up by current routine antenatal monitoring.

A baby who doesn’t get the right balance of nutrients may grow more slowly than expected. So a tailing off of a baby’s growth during pregnancy can signal a problem. Babies who are becoming poorly may move less often, too.

Sands is funding the AFFIRM study that asks whether encouraging women to be aware of their baby’s movements and to tell their midwife promptly if their baby’s movements have changed could help reduce the number of stillbirths. If you are pregnant and are concerned about your baby’s movements, please contact your maternity unit.

We have also funded research looking at scanning in third trimester, which is aimed at improving methods for identifying babies who are not growing as they should.

Other causes

Other causes of stillbirth include:

  • bleeding (haemorrhage) before or during labour
  • placental abruption, when the placenta separates from the womb before the baby is born
  • complications of pre-eclampsia, which is linked with the placenta and causes high blood pressure
  • the umbilical cord slipping down through the entrance of the womb before the baby is born (known as cord prolapse) or wrapping around the baby’s neck
  • intrahepatic cholestasis of pregnancy (ICP), a liver disorder
  • genetic conditions
  • infection (go to NHS Choices for more information)

Incidents during birth

Around 500 babies die every year because of a trauma or event during birth that was not anticipated or well managed. Some babies are stillborn and some die after birth.  Many of these deaths, when they occur at term, could be avoided with better care.

Neonatal deaths

Neonatal deaths are usually linked with:

  • prematurity or low birthweight, both of which increase the likelihood of serious health problems
  • genetic disorders