There’s a wide range of reasons why babies die. We look at causes of stillbirths (death before birth) and deaths of newborn babies separately as different problems are more common in each group.
Many people think that stillbirths happen because of a developmental or genetic problem that means the baby could not survive. In fact, this is the case for fewer than one in ten stillborn babies. For as many as four in ten stillborn babies, the cause of death is not known.
The placenta is the organ that joins the baby and mother in the womb, allowing nutrients and oxygen to pass to the baby. Some stillbirths happen because the placenta doesn’t function properly. This may happen gradually, and it may not be picked up by current routine antenatal monitoring.
A baby who doesn’t get the right balance of nutrients may grow more slowly than expected. So a tailing off of a baby’s growth during pregnancy can signal a problem. Babies who are becoming poorly may move less often, too.
Sands helped fund research (the AFFIRM study) that asked whether encouraging women to be aware of their baby’s movements and to tell their midwife promptly if their baby’s movements have changed could help reduce the number of stillbirths. If you are pregnant and have any concerns about your baby’s movements, please contact your maternity unit straight away.
We have also funded research looking at scanning in third trimester, which is aimed at improving methods for identifying babies who are not growing as they should.
Other causes of stillbirth include:
- bleeding (haemorrhage) before or during labour,
- placental abruption, when the placenta separates from the womb before the baby is born,
- complications of pre-eclampsia, which is linked with the placenta and causes high blood pressure,
- the umbilical cord slipping down through the entrance of the womb before the baby is born (known as cord prolapse) or wrapping around the baby’s neck,
- a liver disorder called intrahepatic cholestasis of pregnancy (ICP),
- genetic conditions,
- infection (go to NHS Choices for more information).
Incidents during birth
Around 100 babies die every year because of a trauma or event during birth that was not anticipated or well managed. Some babies are stillborn and some die after birth. Many of these deaths, when they occur at term, could be avoided with better care. Recently, with improving NHS care, the number of these deaths is falling.
Neonatal deaths can be linked with:
- prematurity or low birthweight, both of which increase the likelihood of serious health problems
- genetic disorders
How many babies die?
Sadly, the death of a baby is not a rare event: around 13 babies die before, during or soon after birth every day in the UK.
In the UK in 2020, around 1 in every 260 births was a stillbirth. In total there were 2,638 stillbirths. That’s around eight babies stillborn every day
Around one-third of stillbirths happen after 37 weeks of pregnancy
Stillbirths account for more than half of the deaths of infants under one year in the UK
Stillbirth rates remained largely unchanged from the late 1990s to 2011. From 2012 the rate started to fall. But more deaths could be prevented.
In the UK in 2020, 1,895 babies died within the four week of life. That’s one baby in every 360 births
The number of babies who die in the neonatal period (the first 28 days after birth) has dropped over the last decade, largely because of advances in medical knowledge and clinical care. But recently the mortality rate has plateaued.
A stillborn baby is one who has died before or during birth, at or after 24 weeks of pregnancy.
A neonatal death happens in the first 28 days after birth.
Stillbirths and baby deaths that happen in the first seven days of life, are sometimes counted together and called perinatal deaths.
Office for National Statistics, Vital statistics population and health reference tables, Dec 2021