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    Intrauterine Fetal Demise: Potential Causes and Warning Signs

    Updated 10 July 2023 |
    Published 03 June 2020
    Fact Checked
    Reviewed by Olga Adereyko, MD, Primary Care Physician, General Practitioner, Medical Consultant
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    Intrauterine fetal demise can occur at any stage of pregnancy, including labor and delivery. Approximately one out of every 100 pregnancies in the U.S. results in a stillborn child. Learn more about what causes intrauterine fetal demise and how to spot key symptoms.

    What is intrauterine fetal demise?

    The fetal demise meaning refers to the death of a baby while in their mother’s uterus. There are numerous terms for describing fetal death, including miscarriage, early stillbirth, late stillbirth, and term stillbirth. 

    While the terms miscarriage and stillbirth are often used interchangeably, there is one distinct difference. Clinically speaking, stillbirth happens after the 20th week of pregnancy, while a miscarriage occurs prior to week 20. 

    Intrauterine fetal demise may be classified as early, late, or term stillbirth:

    • Early stillbirth

    Fetal death between 20 and 27 weeks of completed pregnancy

    • Late stillbirth

    Fetal death between 28 and 36 completed weeks of pregnancy

    • Term stillbirth

    Fetal death at 37 completed weeks of pregnancy weeks or later

    Globally, nearly half of all cases of intrauterine fetal demise occur while the mother is giving birth. Thankfully, advances in medical technology and expertise have drastically lowered the rate of late and term stillbirths, especially compared to previous generations. However, the rate of early stillbirths has remained relatively steady over the last few decades.

    Symptoms of intrauterine fetal demise

    The most frequently observed fetal demise symptoms include:

    • Spotting or bleeding during pregnancy
    • Pain and cramping
    • Fetal kicking and movement suddenly stops
    • Fetal heartbeat is indetectable with a Doppler or stethoscope
    • Fetal heartbeat and movement is indetectable with an ultrasound

    Since many of the warning signs of stillbirth tend to mimic those of other medical conditions, it’s essential to consult your doctor for a proper diagnosis. 

    You should also seek medical advice right away if:

    You haven't felt your baby move at all by 24 weeks. 

    Your baby moves less than is usual for them.

    Your baby moves less than 10 times in 1-2 hours (in trimester 3).

    Remember: you know your body and your baby best so trust your instincts and get in touch with your doctor right away if you feel something isn't right.

    What causes intrauterine fetal demise?

    The primary fetal demise causes include:

    • Post-term pregnancy (passing 42 weeks of gestation)
    • Serious maternal infections (e.g., malaria, cytomegalovirus, listeriosis, toxoplasmosis, syphilis, or HIV)
    • Chronic maternal disorders (e.g., diabetes, high blood pressure, or obesity)
    • Fetal growth restriction (when the baby is unable to grow at a standard rate during pregnancy)
    • Childbirth complications
    • Congenital abnormalities or birth defects 
    • Rh disease (blood incompatibility between mother and child)
    • Placental issues, including poor circulation or twin-to-twin transfusion (i.e., when blood flows unevenly between twins who share a placenta)
    • Umbilical cord problems