A miscarriage is defined as the unintended loss of a pregnancy before 24 weeks. However, most instances happen between the 6th and 12th week. Some women experience symptoms and signs of miscarriage without suffering a loss.
Sadly, between 10% and 15% of women with confirmed pregnancies suffer a miscarriage. The chances increase with a woman’s age, especially over the age of 38. In the majority of cases, the miscarriage occurs either because the fertilised egg has not developed properly, or because the baby is severely malformed. Other causes include problems within the blood vessels that supply the placenta, infection and anatomical problems relating to the cervix (neck of the womb) or the uterus (womb).
There are different types and these can have different symptoms and signs of miscarriage.
- Early miscarriage is when a loss occurs before 12 weeks.
- A threatened miscarriage is when you have symptoms, such as some vaginal bleeding and perhaps uncomfortable stomach cramps. In most cases the only thing to do is wait and see what happens.
- An inevitable miscarriage is when bleeding from the vagina is accompanied by painful stomach cramps and the neck of the womb (cervix) starts to open up. The miscarriage may happen quickly or take some time. You are likely to bleed for about 10 days afterwards.
- A missed or delayed miscarriage is when the baby dies but is not expelled from the womb. You may have an intuition that something is not right, or you may have no miscarriage signs and symptoms at all and only find out something is wrong when you have a routine scan.
If you are concerned aboyut anything, talk things through with your midwife.
Both ‘blighted ovum’ and ‘anembryonic pregnancy’ refer to a situation in which the pregnancy sac develops in the womb, but the sac is empty and does not contain a developing baby. The most likely explanation is that the embryo stopped developing at a very early stage and was reabsorbed. The condition is usually discovered between the 8th and 13th week of pregnancy, sometimes at a routine early scan, and can come as a shock, especially if you had no early symptoms.
An ectopic pregnancy is when the fertilised egg implants itself somewhere other than the womb, usually in one of the fallopian tubes. The baby cannot grow in these circumstances and your fallopian tube can be seriously damaged. You may have brownish vaginal bleeding, possibly severe pain in the lower part of your stomach or shoulder, and feel faint. See your GP immediately. You will need to go to hospital to have the pregnancy removed.
Often, the reasons are unknown. There are some factors that increase the risk. These are:
- Maternal age over 38
- Previous miscarriage(s)
- Hormonal problems (such as having irregular periods)
- Heavy drinking
- Diabetes that is not well controlled.
Generally, doctors cannot tell you the specific causes in individual cases.
Around 1% of women suffer from recurrent miscarriage, which is defined as three or more consecutive miscarriages. It’s a distressing situation and you should be referred to a consultant specialising in early pregnancy loss.
After a miscarriage
If you have lost a baby there are a number of places you can find miscarriage support.
NCT's helpline offers practical and emotional support in all areas of the antenatal experience, birth and early parenthood: 0300 330 0700.
NCT's Shared Experience Helpline supports parents who have had a difficult experience while they were pregnant and in birth or early parenthood.
The Miscarriage Association offers support and information to anyone affected by the loss of a baby in pregnancy, and works to raise awareness and to promote good practice in medical care.
NHS choices also offers information on the loss of a baby, including causes, diagnosis and treatment.
The miscarriage support website provides counselling for women and couples in Scotland who have suffered the loss of a baby, stillbirth or neonatal loss.
Tommy's, a charity which funds research into stillbirth, premature birth and other information around this sensitive issue publishes it's booklet 'Miscarriage: Your questions answered'.