Skip to main content

Stillbirth – a challenge for the 21st century

There are an estimated 2.6 million stillbirths each year [1]. This significant loss of life is frequently unrecognized and hidden from view due to the stigma associated with stillbirth in many countries [2]. Consequently, stillbirth does not receive the prominence it needs in order to influence international policy [3]. Earlier this year these issues were presented in the Ending Preventable Stillbirths Series in the Lancet [15]. This outlined ongoing challenges preventing stillbirths from being addressed. This series of papers in BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth develops the work presented in the Ending Preventable Stillbirths Series. These papers are a cogent reminder of the impact of stillbirth and provide considerations for how this might be addressed.

Firstly, they remind us that stillbirth is a global issue; 98% of stillbirths occur in low and middle income countries (LMICs) [1]. Despite this knowledge, challenges remain in data collection which prevent understanding of the number of stillbirths and their underlying causes. To address issues with data collection e-Health and m-Health strategies have been proposed, but the potential of these approaches has yet to be realized [6]. Data also need to reflect the global nature of stillbirth but to date there is no globally acceptable classification system for perinatal deaths [7, 8]. Studies presented here outline the key characteristics required for such a system including the capacity to accumulate data from both high income and low and middle income settings and for the system to be accessible by e-Health and m- Health [9]. However, of all the classification systems available none had all of the characteristics and most had fewer than half of these facets [7]. It is hoped that the development of the ICD-PM classification will address some of these challenges [10, 11], but this system must evolve and be refined in an ongoing process. Critically, without meaningful data stillbirths will continue to be overlooked and efforts to reduce stillbirth hampered.

Secondly, these papers present the human impact behind the statistics, the negative psychological responses which may clash with societal and cultural expectations of bereaved parents and may result in disenfranchised grief [12]. The stigma of having a stillborn child, particularly in high-burden LMICs prevents parents from being able to acknowledge their child through normal rituals. The human cost extends beyond parents to include the wider family although the consequences vary between cultures and the relationship with the child [13]. Importantly, not all responses were universally negative. Some parents reported a changed approach to their life, self-esteem and identity. The results of the systematic reviews demonstrate that staff behaviour is critical in mediating parents’ responses [14]. Distress may be caused by ritualistic adherence to guidelines rather than the provision of authentic, empathic, respectful care. There are many barriers which must be overcome to deliver high-quality respectful care, including emotional, informational and system factors. It is imperative that international professional organisations such as International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics (FIGO) and international confederation of midwives (ICM) give global leadership to address stillbirth and provide optimum care for bereaved parents.

Lastly, it is clear that stillbirth cannot be addressed by healthcare strategies alone. Stillbirth is undoubtedly associated with social and economic determinants of health. Zeitlin et al. demonstrate that women with lower educational attainment and manual workers have a higher stillbirth rate [14]. These issues are widespread across many countries and echo the findings of increased stillbirth rate in socially marginalized populations such as black or minority ethnic groups, indigenous populations and migrants [5]. This provides a clear challenge to governments that initiatives to reduce stillbirth cannot be confined to healthcare interventions. It is essential to keep in mind that investment in care to reduce stillbirth will also reduce maternal and neonatal deaths and infant morbidity, providing a quadruple return on investment [15].

If research findings are not connected to initiatives to improve care, the opportunity to prevent stillbirths will be reduced. Research must inform initiatives to develop care such as those outlined here to collect data on stillbirths that can be compared between populations. Research can also develop care for women and their families to address their experiences. Key to this is empathic, respectful care that provides tangible support and information for parents and their families. The greatest challenge is to overcome stigma and taboo that keeps stillbirth hidden. The publication of this series of papers unashamedly attempts to maintain the place of stillbirth in the international agenda.


  1. Lawn JE, Blencowe H, Waiswa P, Amouzou A, Mathers C, Hogan D, Flenady V, Froen JF, Qureshi ZU, Calderwood C, et al. Stillbirths: rates, risk factors, and acceleration towards 2030. Lancet. 2016;387(10018):587–603.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  2. Heazell AE, Siassakos D, Blencowe H, Burden C, Bhutta ZA, Cacciatore J, Dang N, Das J, Flenady V, Gold KJ, et al. Stillbirths: economic and psychosocial consequences. Lancet. 2016;387(10018):604–16.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  3. Froen JF, Friberg IK, Lawn JE, Bhutta ZA, Pattinson RC, Allanson ER, Flenady V, McClure EM, Franco L, Goldenberg RL, et al. Stillbirths: progress and unfinished business. Lancet. 2016;387(10018):574–86.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  4. de Bernis L, Kinney MV, Stones W, Ten Hoope-Bender P, Vivio D, Leisher SH, Bhutta ZA, Gulmezoglu M, Mathai M, Belizan JM, et al. Stillbirths: ending preventable deaths by 2030. Lancet. 2016;387(10019):703–16.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  5. Flenady V, Wojcieszek AM, Middleton P, Ellwood D, Erwich JJ, Coory M, Khong TY, Silver RM, Smith GC, Boyle FM, et al. Stillbirths: recall to action in high-income countries. Lancet. 2016;387(10019):691–702.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  6. Froen JF, Myhre SL, Frost MJ, Chou D, Mehl G, Say L, Cheng S, Fjeldheim I, Friberg IK, French S, et al. eRegistries: electronic registries for maternal and child health. BMC Pregnancy Childbirth. 2016;16:11.

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  7. Leisher SH, Teoh Z, Reinebrant H, Allanson E, Blencowe H, Erwich JJ, Froen JF, Gardosi J, Gordijn S, Gulmezoglu AM, et al. Classification systems for causes of stillbirth and neonatal death, 2009–2014: an assessment of alignment with characteristics for an effective global system. BMC Pregnancy Childbirth. 2016;16:269.

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  8. Leisher SH, Teoh Z, Reinebrant H, Allanson E, Blencowe H, Erwich JJ, Froen JF, Gardosi J, Gordijn S, Gulmezoglu AM, et al. Seeking order amidst chaos: a systematic review of classification systems for causes of stillbirth and neonatal death, 2009–2014. BMC Pregnancy Childbirth. 2016;16(1):295.

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  9. Wojcieszek AM, Reinebrant HE, Leisher SH, Allanson E, Coory M, Erwich JJ, Froen JF, Gardosi J, Gordijn S, Gulmezoglu M, et al. Characteristics of a global classification system for perinatal deaths: a Delphi consensus study. BMC Pregnancy Childbirth. 2016;16:223.

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  10. Allanson ER, Tunçalp Ӧ, Gardosi J, Pattinson RC, Vogel JP, Erwich JJHM, Flenady VJ, Frøen JF, Neilson J, Quach A, Francis A, Chou D, Mathai M, Say L, Gulmezoglu AM. Giving a voice to millions: developing the WHO application of ICD-10 to deaths during the perinatal period: ICD-PM. BJOG. 2016;123:1896–9.

  11. Allanson ER, Tunçalp Ӧ, Gardosi J, Pattinson RC, Francis A, Vogel JP, Erwich JJHM, Flenady VJ, Frøen JF, Neilson J, Quach A, Chou D, Mathai M, Say L, Gülmezoglu AM. The WHO application of ICD-10 to deaths during the perinatal period (ICD-PM): results from pilot database testing in South Africa and United Kingdom. BJOG. 2016;123:2019–28.

  12. Burden C, Bradley S, Storey C, Ellis A, Heazell AE, Downe S, Cacciatore J, Siassakos D. From grief, guilt pain and stigma to hope and pride - a systematic review and meta-analysis of mixed-method research of the psychosocial impact of stillbirth. BMC Pregnancy Childbirth. 2016;16(1):9.

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  13. Ogwulu CB, Jackson LJ, Heazell AE, Roberts TE. Exploring the intangible economic costs of stillbirth. BMC Pregnancy Childbirth. 2015;15:188.

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  14. Ellis A, Chebsey C, Storey C, Bradley S, Jackson S, Flenady V, Heazell A, Siassakos D. Systematic review to understand and improve care after stillbirth: a review of parents’ and healthcare professionals’ experiences. BMC Pregnancy Childbirth. 2016;16:16.

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  15. Lawn JE, Blencowe H, Oza S, You D, Lee AC, Waiswa P, Lalli M, Bhutta Z, Barros AJ, Christian P, et al. Every Newborn: progress, priorities, and potential beyond survival. Lancet. 2014;384(9938):189–205.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

Download references

Competing interest

The author declares that he/she has no competing interests

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Alexander E. P. Heazell.

Rights and permissions

Open Access This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made. The Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication waiver ( applies to the data made available in this article, unless otherwise stated.

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Heazell, A.E.P. Stillbirth – a challenge for the 21st century. BMC Pregnancy Childbirth 16, 388 (2016).

Download citation

  • Published:

  • DOI: