Stillbirth late in pregnancy is a major obstetric tragedy. It traumatizes the mother, reverberates through the family for weeks, months, and, sometimes, painful years, and creates recurring waves of sadness, loneliness, anger, and wonder about a child who might have been.
Stillbirth is often defined as fetal loss after 20 weeks of pregnancy (if gestational age is known). By that definition, there are about 6 stillbirths for every 1,000 total births in the United States. Over the past 20 years, the rate of early fetal loss (at 20 to 27 weeks’ gestation) has remained relatively stable, whereas the rate of late fetal loss (28 weeks and later) has decreased by about 30%—likely because of better obstetric care.
Yet much more can be—should be—done to prevent stillbirth because, in part, a substantial number of stillbirths occur after 37 weeks of pregnancy. Here is one standardized, inexpensive way that we can reduce late fetal loss.
Assessing fetal movement
The Cochrane Systematic Review on the assessment of fetal movement as an indicator of fetal well-being, which was updated in 2006, concluded that 1) available data were insufficient to influence practice and 2) robust research was needed in this area.1
In a recent study of more than 65,000 pregnancies, however, Tveit and coworkers reported that taking a standardized approach to a woman’s report of decreased fetal movement reduced the rate of late fetal loss by approximately 33%.2 The study was designed as a multicenter intervention comprising:
- 7 months of preintervention (baseline) data collection, followed by
- standardized changes in practice, and then
- 17 more months of data collection.
Those “changes in practice” included 1) a standardized approach to patient education on how a mother should assess, and respond to, what she perceives to be a decrease in fetal movement and 2) a guideline for clinicians on how to respond when a patient offers a chief complaint of decreased fetal movement.
The centerpiece of the study’s patient education intervention is a brochure that includes a kick chart and detailed advice to the mother about how to count kicks and respond to what she perceives to be a decrease in fetal movement. She is advised to never wait until the next day to contact a health-care provider when she thinks that fetal movement has decreased.
The clinical guideline used in the study recommends that clinicians obtain, from all women who report decreased fetal movement, a nonstress test (NST) and an obstetric sonogram to assess fetal movement, amniotic fluid volume, and fetal growth and anatomy.
Impact of the intervention
Here is what investigators found:
- Before the intervention, baseline late fetal loss rate for the entire pregnant population at the study sites was 3 for every 1,000 births; afterward, that rate fell to 2 for every 1,000.
- The intervention did not significantly increase the number of women who self-reported decreased fetal movement.
- Before the intervention, 6.3% of pregnant women reported decreased fetal movement; afterward, that rate was 6.6%.
- Among women who reported decreased fetal movement, the late fetal loss rate fell—from 4.2% at baseline to 2.4% after the intervention (P < .004).
- Among women who reported decreased fetal movement, the late fetal loss of a normally formed fetus decreased—from 3.9% to 2.2% (P < .005).
- Because of ultrasonography, antenatal detection of growth-restricted fetuses increased significantly after the intervention.
You can do a world of good by providing support for a woman who has just experienced stillbirth; in fact, such support, done well, is as important as the interventions you put in place to prevent fetal loss. Although few high-quality studies have yielded evidence that can guide your response, after the tragedy of a stillbirth, to a grieving mother and her family, two small-scale observational and qualitative studies1,2 recommend that you:
- reduce the woman’s perception of chaos and loss of control
- support an individualized approach to her interaction with, and separation from, the fetus
- support her grieving and be sensitive to its critical steps, including denial, isolation, anger, and depression
- provide her with a comprehensible explanation for the stillbirth
- develop a well-organized care pathway from diagnosis of the loss through to delivery or surgical termination and recovery
- provide opportunity for follow-up with her and her family as a way to offer closure.
What lesson can we take home?
In many birthing centers in the United States, the approach to decreased fetal movement isn’t standardized. Taking a standardized approach to patient education about fetal movement and having a standardized clinical response that includes NST and sonography—the cornerstones of the Tviet study—is likely to reduce the rate of late fetal loss.