Intrauterine Fetal Demise (Stillbirth) Symptoms

Fact-Checked and Medically Reviewed by:
Katie Lavender, RN Registered Nurse
Quick Answer

Every year, about 21,000 babies in the U.S. are tragically stillborn, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In many cases, there is no clear reason. However, sometimes, stillbirth, or intrauterine fetal demise, occurs because of negligence on behalf of the delivering doctor or prenatal care team. Learn what intrauterine fetal demise symptoms to watch for and what to do if you experience pregnancy loss.

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What Is Intrauterine Fetal Demise?

A pregnant woman in a medical gown lying down with an IV line in her hand.

Intrauterine fetal demise (IUFD or stillbirth) refers to the death of a baby inside the womb after the 20th week of pregnancy. IUFD is different from a miscarriage, which occurs before the 20th week.

Early stillbirth is classified as fetal death between 20 and 27 weeks of pregnancy (second trimester), while late stillbirth is between 28 and 36 completed weeks. Term stillbirth occurs after the 37th week of pregnancy.

While the exact cause of stillbirth is often difficult to pinpoint, there are symptoms of intrauterine fetal demise that expecting mothers can watch for.

“The reasons [for stillbirth] go unexplained for 1 in 3 cases.”

— Cleveland Clinic

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What Are the Symptoms of Stillbirth?

Understanding intrauterine fetal demise symptoms is essential for expectant mothers and health care providers to detect signs of stillbirth early.

Here are some of the more common intrauterine fetal demise symptoms.

1. Decrease in Fetal Movement

It can be cause for concern if a woman has been consistently feeling her baby’s movement and notices a sudden decrease or pause.

While reduced fetal movement can be attributed to various reasons, some less serious than stillbirth, always alert your doctor immediately.

2. No Fetal Movement or Heartbeat

A doctor will be able to recognize intrauterine fetal demise symptoms by listening for a baby’s heart rate with a Doppler velocimetry machine (device measuring blood flow).

If no movement or heartbeat from the baby is detected, it could mean something has gone wrong. However, IUFD should be confirmed through an ultrasound showing visual evidence of fetal demise.

3. Cramping or Abdominal Pain

Depending on the cause of stillbirth, it can cause a great deal of cramping and pain in the mother’s abdomen.

For example, problems such as the placenta becoming separated from the womb (known as placental abruption) can cause a lot of pain for the mother, and this emergency can lead to a fetal demise.

4. Maternal Infection or High Fever

In addition to physical pain, a mother experiencing IUFD may also have a high fever or infection.

Infections linked with stillbirth include E. coli or group B strep. If left untreated, maternal infections can spread to different parts of a woman’s body and cause serious and even life-threatening harm.

5. Vaginal Bleeding or Spotting

In some cases, one of the intrauterine fetal demise symptoms is bleeding or spotting, especially when accompanied by cramping or abdominal pain.

If a woman experiences severe or heavy bleeding, this should be considered a medical emergency, and she should seek medical attention immediately.

Risk Factors for IUFD

Stillbirth is a tragedy that can happen to any expecting mother, but certain risk factors increase the likelihood.

Here are some factors that may put some women more at risk for stillbirth:
  • Being of a certain age (for example, being a teen mom or over 40)
  • Delayed prenatal care or no care
  • History of previous pregnancy loss
  • Low socioeconomic status
  • Obesity
  • Pregnant with multiples (twins, triplets, and more)
  • Tobacco or substance use
  • Other medical conditions while pregnant, such as diabetes or hypertension

Infants of high-risk pregnancies are often monitored closely and with special testing such as a biophysical profile (prenatal ultrasound to check a baby’s health) or nonstress test (checks fetal heart rate for 20-30 minutes).

Women at higher risk for stillbirth should discuss options with their doctor.

Diagnosing Symptoms of Intrauterine Fetal Demise

An obstetrician shows a patient ultrasound images of her unborn baby.When a doctor suspects stillbirth, they typically use an ultrasound to get a visual on the baby and listen to the heartbeat. They might also use a Doppler to further check the heartbeat.

If no signs of life are detected and IUFD is confirmed, the doctor will likely recommend a dilation and evacuation (D&E) procedure to remove the baby.

A D&E is the surgical removal of an unborn baby from the uterus. In some cases, doctors might prescribe misoprostol (medication that can be used to induce labor) to assist with the process.

The baby can be delivered vaginally or via Cesarean section, depending on maternal history.

Coping With Pregnancy Loss

Losing a baby to stillbirth is a deeply emotional and traumatic experience for families. The mourning extends beyond immediate grief, often taking a toll on long-term mental health. Concerns about future pregnancies often compound the emotional turmoil.

It’s essential to understand that everyone grieves differently, and there’s no right or wrong way to process such immense loss.

The physical symptoms after an IUFD, like bleeding or cramping, might heal relatively quickly, but the emotional scars can remain for a long time. This makes it essential to find supportive outlets like support groups to navigate the grieving process.

In their journey to healing, many parents seek answers about what caused stillbirth to happen.

What Causes Stillbirth?

There are many possible causes of stillbirth, and the specific reason for death remains unknown in many cases. Sometimes, an autopsy or genetic testing on the baby can help determine a cause of death.

Potential causes of stillbirth include:
  • Birth defects and genetic abnormalities: It is estimated that 1 in 10 babies are stillborn due to congenital abnormalities or genetic disorders.
  • Fetal growth restriction (FGR): This is when a baby doesn’t grow properly in the womb due to placenta issues, limiting oxygen and nutrients. FGR can lead to premature birth, developmental problems, or stillbirth.
  • Infection in mother or baby: If left untreated, maternal and infant infections can become life-threatening. Serious maternal infections include malaria, HIV, and syphilis.
  • Placental problems: Placental problems include placenta previa (placenta covers the cervix), placental abruption (placenta separates from the inner wall of the uterus), and placental insufficiency (a lack of nutrients and oxygen are passed from the mother to the baby).
  • Pregnancy and labor complications: These can include pregnancy with multiples, preterm labor, and birth injuries such as antepartum hemorrhage.
  • Preeclampsia: This pregnancy-related high blood pressure condition can be extremely serious for both the mother and baby.
  • Seizures related to preeclampsia: Eclampsia is a severe complication of pregnancy characterized by seizures, often following preeclampsia.
  • Umbilical cord problems: These can result in a lack of oxygen reaching the baby, a very serious condition known as asphyxia.
  • Other medical conditions: Health conditions in the mother, such as diabetes, obesity, thyroid problems, and hypertension, can cause harm.

Can Medical Malpractice Lead to Stillbirth?

While many stillbirths are unavoidable tragedies, some cases of IUFD result from medical malpractice.

Examples of medical malpractice that can lead to IUFD include:
  • Failure to perform a necessary cesarean section (C-section)
  • Failure to provide proper prenatal care to a woman with a high-risk pregnancy
  • Failure to recognize and treat fetal distress
  • Failure to treat infection in the mother or baby during pregnancy
  • Failure to treat umbilical cord issues
  • Prescribing medication to the mother that could be harmful to the baby

Connect with us at any time, day or night. We may be able to help you determine if your child’s death could have resulted from a medical mistake.

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Get Legal Help for Stillbirth Caused by Negligence

Facing life after stillbirth can feel impossible. While nothing can take away the unimaginable loss your family has experienced, there is help available.

For many families whose loss is due to medical negligence, seeking justice through legal action can provide a sense of closure. Additionally, financial compensation recovered through a birth injury lawsuit can help pay for medical expenses, emotional support, and more.

If you recently suffered from IUFD and believe that it may have been related to doctor or hospital negligence, you should not be left to cope with the consequences by yourself.

The Birth Injury Justice Center partners with top birth injury law firms across the country who may be able to help your family get justice. Call (800) 914-1562 24/7 or fill out our free case review form now to see if we can help.

Intrauterine Fetal Demise Symptoms FAQs

What are the signs of intrauterine fetal death?

Intrauterine fetal demise symptoms can include:

  • Lack of fetal movement and kicks
  • No heartbeat or movement on ultrasound
  • Painful cramping
  • Vaginal bleeding

If you suspect you could be experiencing symptoms of intrauterine fetal demise, seek immediate medical attention.

Is intrauterine fetal demise the same as miscarriage?

No, intrauterine fetal demise (IUFD) and miscarriage are not the same. IUFD, often referred to as stillbirth, occurs when a baby dies in the womb after 20 weeks of gestation.

Miscarriage, on the other hand, refers to the loss of a baby before the 20th week.

How do you confirm fetal demise?

A doctor may be able to recognize fetal demise from a Doppler machine to check the infant’s heart rate but will usually confirm intrauterine fetal demise with an ultrasound.

If IUFD has been confirmed, the woman can discuss her options with her health care provider.

How common is intrauterine fetal demise?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), stillbirth affects around 1 in every 175 births. This amounts to about 21,000 cases of IUFD each year in the United States.

What is the main cause of intrauterine fetal death?

The main cause of IUFD is pregnancy and labor complications, which account for around a third of all stillbirth cases.

Pregnancy and labor complications can include pregnancy with multiples, preterm labor, placental abruption, and birth injury, sometimes due to medical negligence.

Birth Injury Support Team
Reviewed by:Katie Lavender, RN

Registered Nurse

  • Fact-Checked
  • Editor

Katie Lavender has over 8 years of experience as a Registered Nurse in postpartum mother/baby care. With hands-on experience in Labor and Delivery and a role as a Community Educator for newborn care, Katie is a staunch advocate for patient rights and education. As a Medical Reviewer, she is committed to ensuring accurate and trustworthy patient information.

The Birth Injury Justice Center was founded in 2003 by a team of legal professionals to educate and empower victims and families affected by birth injuries. Our team is devoted to providing you with the best resources and legal information for all types of birth injuries.

View Sources
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022, September 29). What is Stillbirth? Retrieved June 30, 2024, from
  2. Cleveland Clinic. Stillbirth. (2020, August 27.) Retrieved June 30, 2024, from
  3. National Library of Medicine. Intrauterine Fetal Demise. (2022, October 31). Retrieved June 30, 2024, from
  4. National Library of Medicine. (2009, May.) Uterine rupture in second-trimester misoprostol-induced abortion after cesarean delivery: A systematic review. Retrieved June 30, 2024, from
  5. Stanford Medicine. (n.d.). Stillbirth. Retrieved June 30, 2024, from