No parent wants to hear the news that their baby has died in the womb, yet this is a sad reality for many couples in the United States. When your baby is stillborn, you go from happily anticipating your little one’s arrival to mourning his or her death.
Approximately 98 percent of stillbirths take place in poor or less affluent countries. Every year, 2.6 million stillborn infants are born in the world. In the United States, this statistic drops down to 27,000 stillbirths – but this is still a high number of stillborn babies.
As part of a series of research studies published online in The Lancet, a medical journal, scientists report that a leading cause of stillborn infants in the United States is obesity.
Obesity, Lack of Prenatal Care Linked to Stillborn Baby
Obese women are more prone to developing high blood pressure (hypertension) and diabetes, which are two major causes of stillborn babies. However, the researchers note that for reasons unrelated to diabetes or hypertension, obese women are still more likely to have a stillborn baby.
In addition, some experts believe that poor and minorities in the United States don’t have access to good prenatal care, which is another contributing factor to stillbirths. Dr. Robert L. Goldenberg, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology, and lead author of one paper on stillborn infants, said:
“My estimate is that if all women had access to very good care, a third to half of the stillbirths in the U.S. could be eliminated.”
Researchers linked obesity to causing roughly 4,000 stillbirths in the U.S. Gaining weight between each pregnancy, even if you were not obese or overweight originally, also increases the risk of a stillborn baby.
Other Causes of Stillbirths
Heavy smoking (more than 10 cigarettes each day) roughly doubles the risk of a stillbirth. Waiting to have a baby until later in life (after age 35) can also increase your risk of giving birth to a stillborn by 65 percent.
Experts have also noticed a link between socioeconomic status to a higher rate of stillborn babies. The researchers involved in these studies have found that there are race disparities as well. African-American women were more likely to give birth to a stillborn baby, compared to their white counterparts. Researchers don’t understand why this disparity exists.
Other causes of stillborn babies include:
• Birth defects – Between 15 and 20 percent of stillborn infants have at least one birth defect.
• Umbilical cord problems – Roughly 2 to 4 percent of stillbirths are due to a knot in the umbilical cord, or unusual placement of the umbilical cord in the placenta.
• Fetal growth restriction – Babies who grow too slowly in the womb are at higher risk of being stillborn. An estimated 40 percent of stillborn infants suffer from poor growth in the womb.
The definition of a stillborn baby differs between countries. In the United States, when a baby dies in the womb after 20 weeks of pregnancy, he or she is called a stillborn baby. A majority of stillbirths occur before labor and delivery. Many women become alarmed when their baby suddenly stops moving or kicking in the womb, and after an ultrasound examination, the doctor will give her the sad news of her stillborn baby.
“Stillbirth does not receive the focus it deserves, because it is a major pregnancy outcome that has been neglected,” said Dr. Goldenberg. “[Stillborns are] as common a bad outcome as infant mortality, and it’s way more common than babies infected with AIDS.”