Sleeping on back increases stillbirth risk

09:00 AEST Fri Oct 12 2012
Amelia Bloomfield
Sleeping on back increases stillbirth risk
Sleeping on back increases stillbirth risk

Australian researchers have found links between how women sleep during their pregnancies and the incidence of stillborn babies.

Dr Adrienne Gordon, a neonatologist from Sydney's Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, has just presented the findings of the Sydney Stillbirth Study, which looked at the pregnancies of 295 women from eight hospitals around Australia.

The five-year study found that women who sleep on their backs are six times more likely to have a stillborn baby.

Dr Gordon believes there is a physical explanation for the back-sleeping correlation as other studies have shown that in some women, prolonged periods of rest on their back can lead to restricted bloodflow to the baby.

In 2008, 2188 babies were stillborn in Australia and 379 in New Zealand (a rate that is 35 times that of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome or SIDS) and this rate does not appear to be declining or conclusively understood.

According to Emma McLeod, director of the Stillbirth Foundation Australia (which funded Dr Gordon’s work), the study is unique in that it looked exclusively at women who were more than 32 weeks along in their pregnancy.

“It’s in this later stage of pregnancy that the largest proportion of stillbirths occur,” she said. “For around 40 percent of stillbirths after 32 weeks, they are otherwise perfectly healthy babies and there is no medical explanation as to why they died,” she said.

With the results of Dr Gordon’s five-year research, a clearer picture is beginning to emerge as to some of the most important factors contributing to stillbirth rates, particularly in late-term.

In addition to sleep position, significant risk factors included the growth rates of babies (being small for their gestational age put) and foetal movement as pregnancies progressed.

“In those women with healthy pregnancies that had a live birth, the frequency and strength of the babies’ movements actually increased later in the pregnancy,” said McLeod.

“This debunks the myth that babies slow down in the womb in preparation for birth.”

While the study’s formal recommendations are still to be published, Stillbirth Foundation Australia advises that women who feel a decrease in their baby’s movement should consult a health professional sooner rather than later.

According to McLeod, “It’s also important that women who are currently pregnant don’t become alarmed if they sometimes sleep on their back.”

“We need to further improve how pregnancy is managed when a baby is identified as small during gestation, especially now we know how significant this is,” she said.

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