Miscarriage, stillbirth and ectopic pregnancy

Some medical issues can happen during pregnancy that are beyond your control. Sometimes this can lead to the death of the child before it is born.


If a pregnancy ends before 24 weeks, it is known as a miscarriage. Miscarriages are quite common in the first three months of pregnancy. At least one in six confirmed pregnancies end in miscarriage.

Many miscarriages which occur early in pregnancy (before 14 weeks) are a result if developmental problems with the baby.

There are other potential causes, such as hormonal or blood-clotting problems.

Later miscarriages can be caused by:

  • infection
  • problems in the placenta
  • the cervix being too weak and opening too early in the pregnancy

A miscarriage in the first few weeks of pregnancy may start like a period, with spotting or bleeding accompanied by mild cramps or back pain. The pain and bleeding may get worse and there can be quite severe cramping pains.

If miscarriage happens later in pregnancy, you may go through an early labour. If you bleed or begin to have pains at any stage of your pregnancy, you should contact your GP or midwife.

Some women find out that their baby has died only when they go for a routine scan. If they have not experienced any pain or bleeding, this can be a terrible shock, especially if the scan shows the baby died days or weeks before. This is sometimes called a missed or silent miscarriage.

Treatment for miscarriage

Sometimes it’s preferable to wait and let the miscarriage happen naturally, but there are three ways to actively manage a miscarriage, including:

  • medicine – you may be offered tablets or pessaries to start the process of miscarriage
  • surgery – if you have been pregnant for less than 14 weeks, your doctor may recommend an operation called an ERPC (evacuation of retained products of conception)
  • induced labour – if your baby dies after 14 weeks, you may go into labour and, although many women would prefer not to go through labour, it is safer than an operation to remove the baby

Stillbirth and neonatal death

In the UK, about 4,000 babies are stillborn every year. Stillbirth is when a pregnancy has lasted for at least 24 weeks and the baby is dead when it is born. About the same number of babies die after birth, often without a clear cause.

Sometimes a baby dies in the uterus (an intra-uterine death or IUD), but labour does not start spontaneously. If this happens, you will be given medicines to induce labour. This is the safest way of delivering the baby. It also gives you and your partner the chance to see and hold the baby at birth, if you want to.

Ectopic pregnancy

An ectopic pregnancy occurs when a pregnancy develops outside of the womb, usually in one of the fallopian tubes. An ectopic embryo will not survive and the pregnancy will miscarry.

The consequences of an ectopic pregnancy can be serious and even life-threatening. It is important to get medical advice immediately if you could be pregnant and experience any of the symptoms of ectopic pregnancy.

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