Science May Have Figured Out What Causes Stillbirths -- & How to Prevent Them

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Stillbirths are devastating, but they're still surprisingly common. About 23,600 babies are stillborn each year, but narrowing down the exact reason why stillbirths occur has been incredibly difficult, if not downright impossible. Now, Australian researchers have made a groundbreaking discovery that might explain why stillbirths happen -- and might give us the ability to prevent them.

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Stillbirths, which are technically defined as the death of a baby after 20 weeks' gestation, have been pinned on everything from genetic defects to illnesses in the mother. But according to new findings from the Hunter Medical Research Institute in Australia, many stillbirths are actually caused by the deterioration of the placenta.

More from CafeMom: Grieving Parents Share Beautiful Stillbirth Photo Series to Bring Comfort to Others

"As you look around at everybody you know, you'll notice that people age at different rates," said Professor Roger Smith, one of the researchers, in an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. "And it's almost certainly the same with the placenta. Some placentas age more rapidly than others."

Ultimately, Smith believes that stillbirths are caused by placentas that age at fast rates, robbing the fetus of the vital oxygen and nutrients it needs to remain healthy and alive. In an effort to stop this -- and drastically lower the 1 in 160 pregnancies that end in stillbirth -- Smith believes that prevention and early detection is key.

According to him, deteriorating placentas emit a detectable enzyme called aldehyde oxidase, and it may be possible to develop tests that can measure this enzyme to determine how healthy a woman's placenta is. 

"It's possible that we'll be able to develop diagnostic tests to pick up in the mother's blood the signs of aging of the placenta," Smith says. "And therefore predict this devastating event so that the obstetricians can perform a caesarean section and get the baby out before the baby dies."

More from CafeMom: After 2 Miscarriages, Heartbroken Mom Shares What It's Like to 'Say Hello & Goodbye' to a Stillborn Baby

While researchers estimate the finish date for these diagnostic tests is still at least five years away, even just having this information sheds new light on these catastrophic events and offers us tons of hope. The loss of a child is something that stays with parents forever. Hopefully we're headed for a future where these losses are not only much less common but also far easier to prevent.

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