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Stillbirth rates fall for Australian mothers over 40

12 September, 2014

Australia is one of the safest places in the world to give birth, with rates of stillbirth among the lowest internationally. However, for every 135 Australian births one baby is stillborn, according to a report released by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW).

In 2009, 2,341 babies were stillborn, accounting for almost three quarters of perinatal deaths.

Stillbirths in Australia 1991-2009, is the first national report on stillbirths and examines the association between maternal, pregnancy and birth factors with stillbirth. In Australia a 'stillbirth' is defined as the birth of a baby who shows no signs of life after a pregnancy of at least 20 weeks gestation or weighing 400 grams or more. Congenital anomalies, or birth defects, are the most common cause of stillbirth in Australia, accounting for 21 per cent of all stillbirths.

From 1991 to 2009, the stillbirth rate in Australia was between 6.4 and 7.8 per 1,000 births. The risk of stillbirth occurring between 28 and 41 weeks gestation dropped between 1991 and 2009, however there was an increase in the risk of stillbirths from 20-27 weeks.

"The reduced risk of stillbirth in pregnancies after 28 weeks of gestation is an important finding, as this is an age beyond which we would expect good outcomes for babies born alive," said AIHW spokesperson David Ellwood, Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at Griffith University, Queensland.

Professor Ellwood represents the Fetal Deaths Report Expert Reference Group made up of representatives from peak bodies in the fields of midwifery, perinatal medicine, obstetrics, gynaecology, and pathology which provided expert oversight over the report.

Changes in stillbirth patterns are also evident within population sub-groups. For example, between 1991 to 2009, stillbirth rates in mothers aged 40 or older fell from 12.7 to 10.6 per 1,000 births, but rose in teenage mothers from 9.5 to 15.0 per 1,000 births.

"The drop in stillbirth rates over time for older women may suggest that some interventions introduced in recent years to the care of pregnant women in later pregnancy have been of benefit, and that further reductions in stillbirth may be possible, but further investigations are needed to determine best practice," Professor Ellwood said.

Some very good news is that stillbirth rates have improved among Indigenous women-dropping from 15.5 per 1,000 births from 1991 to 1994 to 12.3 per 1,000 births from 2005 to 2009, but these rates are still higher than for non-Indigenous women.

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