TUESDAY, Oct. 26 (HealthDay News) -- Dr. Alexander Heazell and
his then-wife were happily getting ready for the birth of their
first child in 2001. They planned to name him Jack.
But the fetus was small for its gestational age, his wife's
blood pressure had shot up during the pregnancy, and at 26 weeks,
she noticed the baby was no longer kicking.
Losing the baby was devastating for Heazell and his wife. The
stress and grief contributed to their divorce, Heazell said. And
the experience led him to alter the course of his career from
general medicine to obstetrics and gynecology in the hopes of
learning more about stillbirth and preventing it from happening to
"It inevitably has a profound impact on your life," Heazell
Stillbirth, defined as a fetus that dies after the 20th week of
gestation, occurs in about one in 160 pregnancies in the United
States, according to the American College of Obstetricians and
Worldwide, the problem is even bigger, said Heazell, who wrote
about his experience and the need for greater research and
awareness about stillbirth in a recent issue of the
BMJ. There are some 3 million stillbirths a year, many of
them in developing countries.
Though the rate of neonatal deaths is falling, the rate of
stillbirth hasn't budged. In the United Kingdom, for example, the
rate has remained at 5.3 stillbirths for every 1,000 births for the
Even worse for parents is that in up to half of all stillbirths,
the cause is never discovered, leaving couples to wonder what went
wrong and whether it could happen again, Heazell said.
What is known is that stillbirths that occur before 32 weeks
tend to result from different causes than those that occur later in
pregnancy, said Dr. Alan Fleischman, medical director for the March
of Dimes Foundation.
Factors that contribute to stillbirths earlier than 32 weeks are
often similar to those that raise the risk of premature birth:
smoking, alcohol use, obesity, clotting or metabolic problems and
kidney or liver disease in the mother, Fleischman said.
During the final weeks of pregnancy, stillbirth is often due to
a catastrophic problem with the placenta or the umbilical cord,
including placental abruption, when the placenta sheers off the
uterine wall, leaving the baby without oxygen and nutrients.
Little can be done to prevent these types of stillbirths,
Fleischman said. But some obstetricians recommend mothers "count
kicks" at the same time every day to monitor how often the fetus
moves. If movement drops off noticeably, mothers should seek
medical attention in the hopes of delivering a baby in distress
before it's too late.
Much of Heazell's research focuses on what goes wrong with the
placenta. Often, an examination of the placenta after a stillbirth
shows signs of reduced blood flow or abnormal aging. "A placenta is
a bit of a record of pregnancy," he said. "If we can understand
what goes wrong, we might be able to stop more stillbirths."
If the placenta has deteriorated, the fetus will stop moving to
conserve energy, Heazell said. "We think there's a small window of
opportunity, maybe between 24 and 48 hours, for some," Heazell
His travels have recently taken him to a meeting of the
International Federation of Placenta Associations in Santiago,
Chile, and an International Stillbirth Alliance conference in
For several years, on the anniversary of the pregnancy loss,
Heazell would take time off from work to grieve and be alone.
Unlike grief associated with other deaths, grieving for a stillborn
baby can be isolating. Families don't share in the loss because
they hadn't yet grown attached to the baby.
The magnitude of the problem and the emotional impact it can
have on couples justify more research into preventing it, Heazell
"If you ask parents to rank the risks to their baby, the things
they are most worried about is cot death [sudden infant death
syndrome], Down syndrome and then stillbirth," Heazell said. "But
cot death affects about one in 3,000, while Down syndrome affects
between one in 800 and one in 1,000. Stillbirth affects more than
one in 200."
"We have to raise the profile of stillbirth, and we need to get
people talking about it," he said.
March of Dimes has more on stillbirth.