Radek Bukowski and colleagues conducted a case control study in 59 US hospitals to determine the relationship between fetal growth and stillbirth, and find that both restrictive and excessive growth could play a role.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
Stillbirth is strongly related to impaired fetal growth. However, the relationship between fetal growth and stillbirth is difficult to determine because of uncertainty in the timing of death and confounding characteristics affecting normal fetal growth.
Methods and Findings
We conducted a population-based case–control study of all stillbirths and a representative sample of live births in 59 hospitals in five geographic areas in the US. Fetal growth abnormalities were categorized as small for gestational age (SGA) (<10th percentile) or large for gestational age (LGA) (>90th percentile) at death (stillbirth) or delivery (live birth) using population, ultrasound, and individualized norms. Gestational age at death was determined using an algorithm that considered the time-of-death interval, postmortem examination, and reliability of the gestational age estimate. Data were weighted to account for the sampling design and differential participation rates in various subgroups. Among 527 singleton stillbirths and 1,821 singleton live births studied, stillbirth was associated with SGA based on population, ultrasound, and individualized norms (odds ratio [OR] [95% CI]: 3.0 [2.2 to 4.0]; 4.7 [3.7 to 5.9]; 4.6 [3.6 to 5.9], respectively). LGA was also associated with increased risk of stillbirth using ultrasound and individualized norms (OR [95% CI]: 3.5 [2.4 to 5.0]; 2.3 [1.7 to 3.1], respectively), but not population norms (OR [95% CI]: 0.6 [0.4 to 1.0]). The associations were stronger with more severe SGA and LGA (<5th and >95th percentile). Analyses adjusted for stillbirth risk factors, subset analyses excluding potential confounders, and analyses in preterm and term pregnancies showed similar patterns of association. In this study 70% of cases and 63% of controls agreed to participate. Analysis weights accounted for differences between consenting and non-consenting women. Some of the characteristics used for individualized fetal growth estimates were missing and were replaced with reference values. However, a sensitivity analysis using individualized norms based on the subset of stillbirths and live births with non-missing variables showed similar findings.
Stillbirth is associated with both growth restriction and excessive fetal growth. These findings suggest that, contrary to current practices and recommendations, stillbirth prevention strategies should focus on both severe SGA and severe LGA pregnancies.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
Pregnancy is usually a happy time, when the parents-to-be anticipate the arrival of a new baby. But, sadly, about 20% of pregnancies end in miscarriage—the early loss of a fetus (developing baby) that is unable to survive independently. Other pregnancies end in stillbirth—fetal death after 20 weeks of pregnancy (in the US; after 24 weeks in the UK). Stillbirths, like miscarriages, are common. In the US, for example, one in every 160 pregnancies ends in stillbirth. How women discover that their unborn baby has died varies. Some women simply know something is wrong and go to hospital to have their fears confirmed. Others find out when a routine check-up detects no fetal heartbeat. Most women give birth naturally after their baby has died, but if the mother's health is at risk, labor may be induced. Common causes of stillbirth include birth defects and infections. Risk factors for stillbirth include being overweight and smoking during pregnancy.
Why Was This Study Done?
Stillbirths are often associated with having a “small for gestational age” (SGA) fetus. Gestation is the period during which a baby develops in its mother's womb. Gestational age is estimated from the date of the woman's last menstrual period and/or from ultrasound scans. An SGA fetus is lighter than expected for its age based on observed distributions (norms) of fetal weights for gestational age. Although stillbirth is clearly associated with impaired fetal growth, the exact relationship between fetal growth and stillbirth remains unclear for two reasons. First, studies investigating this relationship have used gestational age at delivery rather than gestational age at death as an estimate of fetal age, which overestimates the gestational age of stillbirths and leads to errors in estimates of the proportions of SGA and “large for gestational age” (LGA) stillbirths. Second, many characteristics that affect normal fetal growth are also associated with the risk of stillbirth, and this has not been allowed for in previous studies. In this population-based case–control study, the researchers investigate the fetal growth abnormalities associated with stillbirth using a new approach to estimate gestational age and accounting for the effect of characteristics that affect both fetal growth and stillbirth. A population-based case–control study compares the characteristics of patients with a condition in a population with those of unaffected people in the same population.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers investigated all the stillbirths and a sample of live births that occurred over 2.5 years at 59 hospitals in five US regions. They used a formula developed by the Stillbirth Collaborative Research Network to calculate the gestational age at death of the stillbirths. They categorized fetuses as SGA if they had a weight for gestational age within the bottom 10% (below the 10th percentile) of the population and as LGA if they had a weight for gestational age above the 90th percentile at death (stillbirth) or delivery (live birth) using population, ultrasound, and individualized norms of fetal weight for gestational age. Population norms incorporate weights for gestational age from normal pregnancies and from pregnancies complicated by growth abnormalities, whereas the other two norms include weights for gestational age from normal pregnancies only. Having an SGA fetus was associated with a 3- to 4-fold increased risk of stillbirth compared to having a fetus with “appropriate” weight for gestational age based on all three norms. LGA was associated with an increased risk of stillbirth based on the ultrasound and individualized norms but not the population norms. Being more severely SGA or LGA (below the 5th percentile or above the 95th percentile) was associated with an increased risk of stillbirth.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings indicate that, when the time of death is accounted for and norms for weight for gestational age only from uncomplicated pregnancies are used, stillbirth is associated with both restricted and excessive fetal growth. Overall, abnormal fetal growth was identified in 25% of stillbirths using population norms and in about 50% of stillbirths using ultrasound or individualized norms. Although the accuracy of these findings is likely to be affected by aspects of the study design, these findings suggest that, contrary to current practices, strategies designed to prevent stillbirth should focus on identifying both severely SGA and severely LGA fetuses and should use norms for the calculation of weight for gestational age based on normal pregnancies only. Such an approach has the potential to identify almost half of the pregnancies likely to result in stillbirth.
Please access these websites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001633.
The March of Dimes, a nonprofit organization for pregnancy and baby health, provides information on stillbirth
Tommy's, a UK nonprofit organization that funds research into stillbirth, premature birth, and miscarriage and provides information for parents-to-be, also provides information on stillbirth (including personal stories)
The UK National Health Service Choices website provides information about stillbirth (including a video about dealing with grief after a stillbirth)
MedlinePlus provides links to other resources about stillbirth (in English and Spanish)
Information about the Stillbirth Collaborative Research Network is available