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What is Fetal Death?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Fetal death is the death of a developing fetus. There are a number of reasons why a developing fetus may die before birth and diagnostic tests can be performed to determine why a fetal death occurred if the parents are interested. Once it has been determined that the developing fetus has died in utero, the recommended treatment is usually induction of labor so that the fetus and placenta can be expelled from the body. If the fetus is not delivered, infection can occur, and this may interfere with the future fertility of the mother in addition to being potentially life threatening.

Developmentally, the fetus is more developed than an embryo, but not yet ready to survive outside the body because it is still growing. When fetal death occurs at less than 20 weeks it may be referred to as a miscarriage or spontaneous abortion. If it occurs close to full term, it may be termed a stillbirth. Most governments require fetal deaths over 20 weeks to be reported, and this data is used to track perinatal mortality rates, which include fetal deaths and deaths which occur in the first few days of life.

A common reason for a fetal death to occur is a genetic mutation or anomaly which is incompatible with life. Other reasons can include trauma, exposure to toxins, infection, high blood pressure, poorly controlled diabetes, Rh incompatibility, hemorrhage, and cord accidents. The first sign of fetal death is usually decreased fetal movement. If the sleep-wake cycles and movement of the fetus change, it can be a sign of distress, and if the fetus stops moving altogether for an extended period of time, it can mean that fetal death has occurred.

A doctor may quickly listen with a fetoscope for a heart beat if a problem with the pregnancy is suspected. However, for a firm diagnosis, ultrasonography is required. The ultrasound technician can search for a heartbeat and other signs of life. Once the diagnosis is confirmed, a doctor will generally recommend induction of labor. Testing of the fetal remains can be offered to learn more about why the fetal death occurred.

The death of a developing fetus can be traumatic for the parents. Counseling is usually offered to help the parents process the death psychologically and to offer advice if the parents wish to try again for a baby. Counseling can include discussions about how to answer questions at work, from friends, or from other children about what happened, along with assistance with planning a memorial service.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By myharley — On Jan 30, 2012

@Mykol - Yes, this really is a difficult thing for everyone. I attended a memorial service for my niece when the same thing happened to my sister.

She had been trying to have a baby for a long time, and this was her first baby. After this happened, the best thing she did was go to counseling to work through her grief.

A few years later she was able to give birth to a healthy baby girl. This brought her so much joy, but she still grieves for the first baby she lost.

When she got pregnant the second time, she was always so nervous when she would go to the doctor and they listened for the heartbeat. I don't know how she would have been able to handle another fetal death.

By Mykol — On Jan 30, 2012

One of my good friends had a baby that was stillborn. I can't imagine how hard it would be to go through something like this.

If I remember right, this was discovered when she was about 8 months along at a routine appointment. The doctor didn't hear a heartbeat, and after some testing, told her the bad news.

She still had to give birth and this was one of the hardest things - going through the birthing process knowing her baby was not alive. Instead of receiving a birth certificate for her baby, she was given a fetal death certificate. What a hard situation for someone to go through.

By ysmina — On Jan 29, 2012

@anamur-- They say that drinking really cold water makes the fetus move and some women who are at risk for a fetal death try to check that way. Other say that simply being in a super quiet environment allows you to feel the fetus' heart beat.

But the best way of course, is to see the doctor and have them listen to the heartbeat or have a fetal ultrasound. If your roommate is concerned, I suggest she goes to the ER to make sure everything is okay. She shouldn't wait for an appointment with the doctor.

As far as I know, if fetal death has occurred, there will definitely be some physical symptoms of it like cramping and pain. But that might also mean that the fetus has begun to decompose and that's a dangerous situation. So it's best to find out as soon as possible.

By serenesurface — On Jan 28, 2012

My roommate is 22 weeks pregnant and she's been saying that she hasn't felt the fetus move in two days. She is worried that something is wrong but she won't be able to see her doctor until Monday.

Are there any dependable ways to tell if the baby is still alive while at home? Like a fetal monitoring method or something?

I personally think everything is fine because I would imagine that there would be some side effects if something had happened to the baby. But I want her mind to be at ease and it looks like it won't be until she feels the baby move or sees the doctor.

Please let me know if you have any recommendations!

By burcinc — On Jan 28, 2012

I've heard that fetal death happens a lot during and after natural disasters. There was an earthquake in Turkey recently and I heard on TV that doctors have been seeing a lot more fetal death cases than usual in that region. Apparently, it's increased two or three fold.

I guess stress is a major factor leading to a fetus' death. I had heard of early deliveries due to the mother being very stressed. But I didn't know that it could trigger other issues and result in the death of the fetus as well.

I guess fetuses are much more sensitive to environmental factors and the mother's psychology than we realized. They're not protected from traumas despite being in the womb. I think that's why pregnant women should be really careful not to get too stressed out or worry too much during their pregnancy.

By ElizaBennett — On Jan 27, 2012

@MissDaphne - You do have to be careful about reading the news when you're pregnant! Poor thing, you must have been terrified to go to the doctor after that. It's so much less scary once you start feeling movement and can judge for yourself that things are still going well. (Unless, of course, you stop feeling movement.)

Rick Santorum's situation was different. His wife had had surgery for a problem with the fetus and then developed a life-threatening infection. She was in her second trimester and baby was definitely too small to survive outside the womb. I have heard two different versions of what happened next. One is that she was given medicine to induce labor to save her life; another is that she was *not* given medicine to *stop* labor. At any rate, their baby was born alive and lived for a couple of hours, so what they experienced was an infant death.

By MissDaphne — On Jan 26, 2012

This has been in the news a few times. Didn't Michelle Duggar and Rick Santorum both go through this at different points (many years apart)?

I was very struck by Michelle Duggar's experience even though I don't usually follow reality TV and frankly think the whole 19 kids thing is just weird. But she and I were pregnant at the same time; she was a bit further along than me. And I was starting to show and looking forward to feeling movement when it was in the news that they had experienced fetal death in utero.

Apparently she went in for a routine checkup and the doctor couldn't find a heartbeat - that is sometimes the first sign that anything has gone wrong. I can't even imagine what that feels like. After the first trimester, you really expect things to go smoothly and those doctor's appointments are usually just a quick trip to pee in a cup and hear the heartbeat.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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