Decreased fetal movement: Time to educate patients and ourselves


We have all as providers experienced the tragic stillbirth of a term fetus for one of our patients. Too often no fetal movement was felt for days, but the patient never called. Or the patient did call, but the nonstress test (NST) was reactive or the ultrasound showed normal growth and fluid or the biophysical profile (BPP) was 8/8. Yet the patient still presented with a stillborn fetus a day later. Was the first patient simply so fearful of the likely deceased child within her that she did not call? Or did she simply not know to report it because she was not educated about what decreased fetal movement could mean? Could the second example have been prevented even though the testing was normal? I believe both scenarios could have been prevented with better education for both providers and patients.

Image of a certificate of stillbirth

The national stillbirth rate has remained relatively stagnant since 2000, despite many improvements in guidelines for the management of higher risk pregnancies.1 We follow the growth of these pregnancies, do NSTs, and often induce these patients prior to the due date. We do this in the hope of having a healthy mom and baby. However, an analysis of 614 stillbirth cases and 1,816 control deliveries found that 81% of patients presenting with a stillborn baby had no risks factors that required additional monitoring.2 Nearly 66% of 1,714 patients with a late stillbirth reported decreased fetal movement, no fetal movement, or a concerning increase in fetal movement in the days leading up to their baby’s death.3 Studies have suggested that persistent decreased fetal movement has an odds ratio for stillbirth of 4.51,4 which is higher than hypertensive disease and diabetes for this same outcome by nearly a factor of two. Yet there are no formal guidelines on education for patients or management of this chief complaint.

We assess fetal movement at every prenatal visit but patients who experienced stillbirth will say they didn’t know why. This is because as a culture and a profession we are afraid to talk about such a taboo subject as stillbirth. We are afraid we will scare our patients if we tell them that a decrease in fetal movement or no fetal movement may be because their baby is at risk for this dreaded complication. On one level this argument makes sense, but as soon as the baby is born we give parents plenty of education and advice to keep their children safe. Telling a parent to remove all bedding, put their baby on their back, and keep their baby from being too warm to prevent sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) is very scary. However, this education is necessary. If moms simply know the reason why we ask about fetal movements, they may not wait 2 days before they call. We must have faith that pregnant women can handle this education about decreased fetal movement.

Next most important is our response to the complaint of decreased fetal movement. Often when the NST is reactive or the ultrasound is normal, we assume the baby is at no risk and we reassure the mother that everything is fine. We often tell moms the false myth that babies slow down at the end or advise kick counts after this complaint despite studies failing to show their utility. Because the education about kick count is frequency is what matters, a mother may not call if there is a change in pattern or strength – even if she is very worried about this. A baby may “pass” a kick count, but a mom still may be very worried, yet she will not call because the baby “passed.”

Protocols from the United Kingdom and Australia focus on the assumption that the complaint of decreased fetal movement may be the only warning sign of impending stillbirth. Harvey Kliman, MD, PhD, director of reproductive and placental research unit at Yale University, New Haven, Conn. said an analogy to this is a car driving 55 miles per hour despite only 10 miles of gas being left in the tank.* The car is running fine even when it is almost out of gas. That may be why we all have seen a fetus with recent reassuring tests in the last few days who presents stillborn. Perhaps the only warning sign is decreased fetal movement – not a nonreactive NST or low score BPP. Placental insufficiency is often the cause of initially unexplained stillbirth, far more common than “cord accidents.” If we liken the placenta to the “gas tank” for the pregnancy, then decreased fetal movement may be the “low gas” signal on the dashboard. After this patient has a reactive NST and/or reassuring ultrasound, we need to ask her if she is reassured. Data from a study of 380 women found that women who had a gut instinct that something was wrong were 23 times more likely to experience a stillbirth, according to the unadjusted odds ratio from the logistic regression model.5 We should follow up closely with moms who are not reassured and consider induction if they are over 39 weeks. We should tell every mom who presents with a concern about fetal movement that she did the right thing, and we want to hear from her again immediately if the movement is decreased again or persists. We cannot make women feel silly for calling. We should do an ultrasound for worried moms even if the NST is reactive to make sure we are not missing oligohydramnios or fetal growth restriction; the latter is the biggest known risk factor for stillbirth. We also should perform an ultrasound for moms with risk factors for stillbirth such as advanced maternal age or black race.

Dr. Heather Florescue, an ob.gyn. in private practice at Women Gynecology and Childbirth Associates in Rochester, N.Y.

Dr. Heather Florescue

The education about and plan for management of decreased fetal movement are two components of the UK Saving Babies Lives Protocol; one study in the United Kingdom has shown a 20% decline in stillbirths from 2010 to 2017. The other two components are making sure to catch all fetal growth restricted babies and smoking cessation. We incorporated this protocol in my practice several months ago, and we have had very positive feedback from patients. We are not getting an increase in concerns/visits and have not had any patients call and say that they were upset about receiving this education. The Word Health Organization calls stillbirth a “neglected tragedy.” The United States has the lowest annual reduction of its stillbirth rate for all high-income nations in the Lancet 2015 series on stillbirth.6 I believe if we do better at educating patients and managing the complaint of decreased fetal movement, we will see a drop in our saddest fetal complication.

Dr. Florescue is an ob.gyn. in private practice at Women Gynecology and Childbirth Associates in Rochester, N.Y. She delivers babies at Highland Hospital in Rochester. She has no relevant financial disclosures.


1. The Lancet. 2016, Jan 18;387(10018):587-603.

2. JAMA. 2011 Dec 14;306(22):2469-79.

3. BMC Pregnancy Childbirth. 2015 Aug 15;15:172.

4. BMJ Open. 2018 Jul 6;8(7):e020031.

5. Midwifery. 2018 Jul;62:171-6.

6. The Lancet. 2016, Jan 18;387(10019):691-702.

*This article was updated on 5/4/2020.

Next Article: