Experts say 1 in 3 stillbirths in the UK are preventable
The U.K. has a stillbirth rate of about one in 200 births, ranking 21st out of 35 of the world's wealthiest nations, the Daily Mail reports. But could many of these stillbirths be prevented by improved monitoring of pregnant women?
The simple answer appears to be "yes." At least in the cases of three heartbroken mums who have been brave enough to share their stories.
Three weeks before the birth of her first child, Heidi Eldridge discovered that the baby boy she was carrying had died.
"I just kept thinking: 'He's not going to be in his Moses basket or his nursery,'" she said of her son Aiden. "I couldn't believe it was happening. This is the 21st century. I didn't think babies died like that any more."
To add to her pain, Eldridge later discovered that her unborn son's death may have been prevented had her pregnancy been monitored better.
According to the Daily Mail, Eldridge "is just one of around 2,200 women in the U.K. each year who suffer stillbirth." And a study published in The Lancet claims that about "720 of those babies — one in three — could have been saved if their mothers had received better care."
Eldridge's story is not an isolated one. Mum Nicole Regan-White found herself in a similar situation after going into labour at 41 weeks, only to discover that her unborn daughter Jessica had died. A post-mortem found Jessica's death to be "inconclusive."
Michelle Hemmington also suffered a stillbirth at Northampton General Hospital in 2011 — her son had become distressed during a long labour and eventually an incision was made to ease the birth. It was too late, and after 30 minutes of resuscitation he was pronounced dead.
Hemmington was told by the hospital that it was just "one of those things", and she and her husband had to resort to legal action to get the NHS trust to take responsibility for their actions.
Stillbirths see very little investigation or explanation from the NHS and according to Huffington Post, the CEO of pregnancy charity Tommy's, Jane Brewin, says that "In the NHS, there is a fear that there is something they have done, which has contributed to the event happening, so there is a reluctance to say too much for fear of implicating things themselves. [sic]"
So what can be done to reduce the number of stillborn deaths?
The director of the Perinatal Institute in Birmingham, Professor Jason Gardosi, told the Daily Mail that many stillbirths are preventable with proper monitoring, most importantly monitoring the growth of the foetus. A lack of growth signifies a problem and precautions can then be taken to ensure its health.
"One-off scans don't work," said Gardosi. "The only way to reliably detect growth restriction is by sequentially measuring the growth of the baby until it is born. This should be done with a tape measure for low-risk mothers and by scans in high-risk pregnancies. And the measurements ought to be recorded on individual charts. Only then can you spot problems and intervene before it's too late."
The professor has set up a scheme called Growth Assisted Protocol, which costs hospital trusts 50 pence per pregnancy and aims to train nurses in using growth charts for the above-mentioned monitoring. It has been very successful so far — in the West Midlands stillbirths have fallen 22 percent, while other areas have seen similar reductions.
According to the Sands Organisation, stillbirths could be a public health issue and there is a need for greater awareness of the risks involved so parents can make more informed choices about their health and pregnancy care.
In a 2012 document titled "Preventing Babies Deaths: what needs to be done," Sands states that "Despite government initiatives, inequalities in perinatal mortality persist. A national forum should be established to share understanding of the public health aspects of perinatal death and develop public health and education messages."
Awareness alone could help save lives but the organisation also suggests that new research and interventions should be implemented.
"A third of stillborn babies are perfectly formed and born at gestations when they might safely be delivered," the document states. "But routine antenatal care is failing to detect far too many babies who need help."
"New reliable, diagnostic tests are urgently needed. Stillbirth is where cot death was 30 years ago. There is still so much to be done. Government research funding bodies must direct funds expressly into the causes and prevention of unexplained stillbirth."