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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.