Intrauterine Fetal Demise (Stillbirth)

In 2021, over 3.6 million babies were born in the United States. Although most newborns are relatively healthy, approximately 30,000 newborns suffer birth injuries each year.

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In 2021, over 3.6 million babies were born in the United States. Although most newborns are relatively healthy, approximately 30,000 newborns suffer birth injuries each year. Common birth injuries include the following:

  • Brachial palsy: Brachial palsy occurs when a newborn suffers damage to the nerves of their arms and hands. Brachial palsy can be temporary or permanent. 
  • Broken bones: Forceps delivery and vacuum extraction increase the risk of skull fractures during birth. Newborns have a higher risk of collarbone fractures during breech births and when shoulder dystocia occurs during birth.
  • Bruising: Bruising can occur naturally when the infant passes through the birth canal. Forceps delivery and vacuum extraction can also cause bruising.
  • Facial paralysis: Facial paralysis stems from pressure on the facial nerves. Pressure from forceps can cause this damage.

In addition to the 30,000 newborns affected by birth injuries, intrauterine fetal demise (stillbirth) claims 24,000 lives annually. Some cases of intrauterine fetal demise are preventable, and parents may seek justice through a birth injury lawsuit. If you or a loved one have lost a child to intrauterine fetal demise, we are so sorry you’re going through this terrible tragedy. We are here to help you in any way we can.

What is intrauterine fetal demise (stillbirth)?

Intrauterine fetal demise (stillbirth) is the term used when the fetus dies before birth and after 20 weeks of gestation. Loss of the fetus in utero before 20 weeks is referred to as a miscarriage. 

There are three classifications of intrauterine fetal demise (IUFD). IUFDs occurring between 20 and 27 weeks of gestation are called early IUFDs. Late IUFDs occur between 28 and 36 weeks of pregnancy. Term IUFDs appear at 37 weeks or more.

Symptoms 

IUFD symptoms include the following:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Cramping
  • Discomfort
  • The fetus is not kicking or moving
  • Fever
  • Vaginal bleeding

Expectant mothers should seek medical care immediately if they experience these symptoms. Your doctor can order an ultrasound and monitor the fetal heart rate to determine if there are signs of fetal distress or confirm IUFD. 

Treatment 

Expectant parents may opt to pursue treatment immediately if possible. Doctors use one of the following treatments for IUFDs:

  • Dilation and evacuation (D&E): The medical team uses dilators to stretch the cervix and remove the stillborn fetus
  • Foley bulb induction: Your doctor places a balloon catheter in your cervix. Once the balloon is filled with sterile salt water, it gently pushes against the cervix to start labor. You’ll go through labor and deliver your stillborn baby. 
  • Induced labor: Your doctor can also use medicine to induce labor, enabling you to deliver your stillborn fetus

Some expectant parents opt to wait before treatment. Delaying treatment gives parents time to come to terms with their loss. Treatment is also delayed if there’s another living fetus in the womb. 

Complications that can result in intrauterine fetal demise (stillbirth) 

Complications during pregnancy and risk factors that can lead to IUFD include the following:

  • Diabetes: There’s a higher risk of IUFD for those with pre-existing or gestational diabetes. High sugar levels in the mother’s blood cause the fetus to produce insulin, and high insulin levels affect fetal development, which can result in a stillbirth. 
  • Fetal distress: Symptoms of potential IUFD are the same symptoms of fetal distress. Lack of movement, cramping, vaginal bleeding, abdominal pain, and other IUFD symptoms can indicate the fetus isn’t getting enough oxygen, blood, or nutrients. 
  • Fetal growth restriction: Fetuses that fail to grow to a typical weight in utero have a higher risk of IUFD. Alcohol abuse, issues with the placenta, infections, and smoking are some of the causes of fetal growth restriction.
  • History of stillbirths: Those who’ve had prior stillbirths have a higher risk of IUFD than individuals who haven’t had stillbirths.
  • Hypertension: When an expectant mother has high blood pressure during pregnancy, there is a higher risk of stillbirth.
  • Mother’s age: Stillbirths are more common among individuals 35 and older. As people age, their endothelial cells are damaged, increasing the risk of high blood pressure. 
  • Obesity: Obesity can increase the risk of IUFD if the mother consumes a high-fat diet because a high-fat diet can affect the blood flow to the fetus and affect the placenta.
  • Placental issues: An underdeveloped placenta can prevent the fetus from getting the blood, nutrients, and oxygen needed to survive. Placental abruptions also trigger IUFDs. 
  • Substance use: Mothers who smoke, drink, or do drugs during pregnancy increase the risk of IUFD.
  • Umbilical cord issues: The umbilical cord delivers all the essentials a fetus needs to survive. An active fetus can lose access to that supply if the cord is knotted or twisted. The fetus is also at risk if the cord wraps around the neck or the umbilical vein ruptures. Any issues with the umbilical cord put the fetus at risk.

What causes issues that lead to intrauterine fetal demise (stillbirth)? 

Common causes of issues leading to IUFD include the following:

  • Birth defects: Fetal abnormalities can lead to IUFD. Bladder exstrophy (the bladder develops outside the fetus) and neural tube defect anencephaly (developmental issues with the skull and brain) are examples of birth defects that can trigger IUFD. 
  • Fetal infection: Chlamydia, E. coli, and other bacterial infections can transfer from the mother to the fetus and trigger IUFD. Urinary tract, genital, and other infections can also pass from mother to fetus, resulting in stillbirth. 
  • Feto-maternal hemorrhage: Feto-maternal hemorrhage (FMH) involves fetal blood loss because the fetus’s blood cells are going into the mother’s bloodstream. FMH can cause anemia and, in severe cases, IUFD.  
  • Genetic disorders: Edwards syndrome, Down syndrome, and other genetic disorders can trigger IUFD.
  • Long pregnancies: Labor typically begins just after 40 weeks of gestation. When labor doesn’t occur by this stage, the risks of medical issues, including intrauterine fetal demise, increase. 
  • Overmedication: Medications taken during pregnancy can impact the fetus’s development and health. Taking too much medication can trigger a stillbirth.
  • Physical trauma: Car accidents, assaults, and other incidents causing blunt trauma can trigger IUFD. The fetus is also at risk if something penetrates the mother’s abdomen.

Can medical malpractice cause intrauterine fetal demise (stillbirth)?

It’s reasonable to expect medical professionals to provide expert care and take appropriate actions to prevent intrauterine fetal demise during pregnancy. Although some stillbirths stem from natural causes and can’t be prevented, there are times when medical malpractice causes stillbirths.

Medical malpractice refers to instances when a medical professional fails to take appropriate actions when treating a patient. It can involve prescribing the wrong medication, dismissing symptoms, failing to order tests, or making mistakes during medical procedures.

Your obstetrician (OB) should monitor you and your baby through every stage of your pregnancy. Your OB should be aware of your medical history and any factors increasing the risk of IUFD. Medical malpractice might be the root cause of IUFD if your OB or another medical professional failed to take appropriate steps during your pregnancy. You may have legal grounds to pursue a birth injury lawsuit if medical professionals fail to do the following:

  • Induce labor after 40 weeks of gestation
  • Perform an ultrasound or non-stress test to confirm fetal distress
  • Provide appropriate care during pregnancy
  • Report symptoms of fetal distress
  • Screen for genetic disorders
  • Test for and treat gestational diabetes
  • Test for and treat infections

You could also have grounds for a lawsuit if you lose your baby because your doctor overprescribed medication during your pregnancy or a medical professional made an error and gave you too much medicine or the wrong medication. You may also have grounds for a claim if you got an infection while in the hospital or during a medical procedure and that infection caused IUFD.

Can I sue for intrauterine fetal demise (stillbirth) if I suspect medical malpractice?

You can sue a medical professional or hospital for wrongful death if your baby’s death was preventable. Although it’s impossible to undo the tragic loss of your baby, a medical malpractice suit can provide you with the compensation you need while dealing with your grief. Medical malpractice suits can also prompt medical professionals and institutions to take steps to prevent further tragedies.

Why should I file a lawsuit?

Losing a child is a traumatic experience. It’s natural for expectant parents to grieve their loss, and you may find it challenging to work or socialize while grieving. You’ll also have medical expenses for the medical treatment you received for IUFD, lost wages from time off work during your treatment and recovery, and funeral and burial expenses. You can seek compensation for the following from a medical malpractice lawsuit:

  • Economic damages: Economic damages are compensation for incurred expenses, including the following:
    • Burial costs
    • Childcare expenses
    • Funeral expenses
    • Household care costs
    • Lost income
    • Medical bills
    • Transportation costs
  • Non-economic damages: Non-economic damages compensate victims for the emotional and physical toll they’ve suffered and include compensation for the following:
    • Anxiety
    • Depression
    • Grief
    • Pain and suffering
    • Post-traumatic stress disorder

How can a birth injury lawyer help me?

A birth injury lawyer is writing in a notebook at his desk. Next to him is a stack of books, the scales of justice, and a gavel.

Seeking justice through a lawsuit involves gathering evidence, preparing legal paperwork, initiating legal action, and negotiating with the at-fault party. These are challenging tasks for anyone outside the legal field, and grieving parents may find the thought of trying to prepare a case overwhelming. 

At Bachus & Schanker, we understand how devastating it is to lose a child. We have a Victim’s Advocate team of legal and law enforcement professionals who investigate and gather evidence so you can focus on processing your grief. One of our Colorado medical malpractice lawyers will prepare your legal paperwork and file your case before the statute of limitations expires, ensuring you can seek justice through the courts. 

Our team is here to help you navigate the legal process. We’ll ensure you know what to expect and update you as your case progresses. We’ll negotiate with the at-fault party to get you the settlement you deserve. We’ll present your case in court to seek a judgment if necessary and use our skills and knowledge to advocate for you to receive fair compensation.

Sources:

Birth injury statistics. (2023). 

Births and Natality. (2023). 

Fetal distress. (2022).

Intrauterine fetal demise. (2023). 

What Is a Foley Bulb? (2023).

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Written and Legally Reviewed By: Kyle Bachus

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Kyle is a member of the Colorado and Florida Bar associations and has served on the Board of Directors of the Colorado Trial Lawyers Association for more than twenty years in total. Over the years, Kyle has achieved justice for many clients. He has served on numerous committees and repeatedly won recognition from his peers at both the state and national level. He is proud of the role he has played in the passage of state and national legislation to protect consumers and is a frequent speaker and guest lecturer.