Stillbirth risk 2-4 times higher in mothers experiencing psychological abuse and stress in pregnancy

on 02 November 2020

Research by Tommy’s has found that mothers are 2-4 times more at risk of stillbirth if they are experiencing deprivation, unemployment, stress and domestic abuse during pregnancy.

The study, conducted by Tommy’s Manchester Research Centre (Tommy’s Maternal and Fetal Health Research Centre), studied more than 1,000 births across 41 UK hospitals between 2014 and 2016.

This information was then combined with interviewer-led questionnaires about women’s behaviour and social characteristics.

Using this information, it was found that women from the most deprived socio-economic group were 2.96% times at higher risk of stillbirth, and unemployed women were 2.85% times more likely to have a stillborn baby.

High levels of stress during pregnancy was also found to double the risk of stillbirth (3.57% vs 1.17%).

However, the research found that regularly attending antenatal appointments reduced the risk.

Tommy’s Chief Executive, Jane Brewin, said: “1 in 250 UK pregnancies end in stillbirth, and while attending antenatal appointments can reduce the risk, this research shows that stillbirth is not a problem we can solve with healthcare alone. The complex relationships identified here between stillbirth and social stresses make it clear that the Government’s prevention strategy must extend beyond the NHS to tackle these deeper underlying issues within society.”

Lucy Wakeling, 26, from Worthing gave birth to stillborn daughter Hope in July 2018 following a stressful pregnancy which was intensified by her abusive ex-partner who didn’t want the baby. Lucy ended the relationship when she was 7 weeks pregnant.

She said: “He was so unpredictable, one minute wanting to be involved and the next threatening to ‘take the baby away as soon as you’ve finished breastfeeding’, saying my bump was small and accusing me of not looking after myself when I’d lost my appetite from stress.

“At 25 weeks pregnant I cut contact with him, until I invited him to the baby’s funeral, where he told me this wouldn’t have happened if I’d just had the abortion he wanted.”

The research found that antenatal care could give strong protection against childbirth, with 72% lower risk for mother who attend more antenatal appointments than national guidance recommends.

The Royal College of Midwives (RCM) Executive Director for Professional Leadership, Birte Harlev-Lam said: “The findings of this research are concerning and really do highlight the importance of ensuring all women attend all their antenatal appointments, particularly those who are most vulnerable as we know this can lower the risk of stillbirth.

“It is important we don’t pigeon-hole women from the first appointment, that we treat each woman as an individual and tailor their care and support accordingly.”

The research was published in the British Journal of Obstetrics & Gynaecology and can be found here.