Different Types Of Pregnancy Loss & What They Mean
Losing a pregnancy can be absolutely devastating for a parent, no matter the circumstances. While miscarriage is one of the more common terms used, there are actually several types of pregnancy loss that can occur. In some cases, a medical professional is able to pinpoint the specific cause, but others happen seemingly without reason. Regardless the reason, all have the potential to leave a lasting effect on parents.
When you hear 'pregnancy loss,' you likely already know what it means without needing further explanation. However, it's technically an umbrella term that represents the various clinically specific types of pregnancy loss. Kathleen Winston, Ph.D., R.N., Dean of the School of Nursing at the University of Phoenix, tells Romper via email, "Pregnancy loss is the death of an unborn baby (fetus) at any time during pregnancy," regardless of weeks or trimesters.
In a call with Romper, OB-GYN, Annelise S. Swigert, M.D., says the word 'miscarriage' is similar to 'pregnancy loss' and is the most common term used, but it's not always technically accurate. Timing of the loss and the biological reason behind it are some of the factors that are considered when determining the specific type of pregnancy loss. Here are some of the different terms and types of loss that can happen during pregnancy.
A miscarriage is when a baby dies in the womb during the first trimester (or first 13 weeks), explains Dr. Winston, and are sometimes referred to as an early miscarriage, "early pregnancy loss," or "spontaneous abortion." However, Dr. Swigert notes that the word "abortion" is an outdated clinical term that is no longer used in the medical community, but still comes up because of older research.
In these types of losses, Dr. Swigert explains, the fetus isn't "developing normally and the body recognizes that," which is what causes the miscarriage. Dr. Winston notes that "about half of the early pregnancy losses are from defects in genes or chromosomes."
This is the most common type of pregnancy loss, Dr. Swigert explains, and 15-20% of pregnancies result in a miscarriage. She says that the risk of miscarriage increases with age, with a 20 year old having around a 10% chance and a 40 year old having around a 50% chance of miscarriage.
Regardless of age, Dr. Swigert emphasizes that a miscarriage is often out of a person's control and not a result of something they've done. "Sex, stress, and exercise don't cause miscarriages," she says, "[but] if a person is fearful or has questions they should talk to their medical provider."
2. Missed Miscarriage Or Embryonic Pregnancy
An embryonic pregnancy is also often referred to as a blighted ovum, and it happens very early on in pregnancy, often before a person even knows they are pregnant. Dr. Winston says this type of pregnancy loss happens when "the egg is fertilized but it never develops into an embryo." The body may naturally miscarry in this situation, or it may result in a 'missed miscarriage', which the Miscarriage Association says is usually discovered during an ultrasound scan, often takes parents completely by surprise.
3. Ectopic Pregnancy & Termination
An ectopic pregnancy occurs when "the fetus develops outside the uterus," says Dr. Winston, "this might be in a fallopian tube, the cervix, the pelvis, or abdomen." In this case, the University of Michigan says after a person will likely experience some bleeding and/or stomach and pelvic pain. An ectopic pregnancy will not correct itself and it can pose a serious health risk to the person carrying it. Because of this, doctors will have to terminate the pregnancy, which can be an extremely difficult loss, especially after a positive pregnancy test.
4. Vanishing Twin Syndrome
Someone pregnant with multiples (twins or more) could experience a loss known as vanishing twin syndrome which means one of the embryos or fetuses does not fully develop in the womb. This happens up to 30% of multiples pregnancies, per Healthline.
This type of loss is called 'vanishing twin syndrome' because many times it's discovered after an early ultrasound picked up two fetuses, but then at a later appointment only one is present. This is because the tissue from the lost fetus is absorbed by another baby, the person carrying the babies, or the placenta.
5. Stillbirth Or Late Miscarriage
Even though they're both pregnancy losses, miscarriages and stillbirth differ based on the timing of loss. Stillbirth, occurs "when the fetus dies after 20 weeks of pregnancy," explains Dr. Winston, but they are rare and only "occur in about 2% of pregnancies." Typically, a stillbirth in the second or third trimester is the result of "genetic abnormalities and birth defects," says Dr. Swigert.
In this situation, according to March of Dimes, how the baby is delivered depends on a variety of factors, specifically how far along the pregnancy is. Sometimes a person can undergo a dilation and curettage (D&C) procedure, but oftentimes the choices are to either induce labor for delivery or wait for the body to go into labor on its own, which typically happens within two weeks of the loss.
Both Dr. Swigert and Dr. Winston stress the importance of knowing that pregnancy losses are usually out of a person's control and are a result of biology. "[People] often have feelings of guilt [after a pregnancy loss] and they try to figure out what they did wrong," says Dr. Winston "most times, they did nothing wrong." Even without guilt, coping with this kind of loss can be extremely difficult and both doctors suggest finding support during the process.
Kathleen Winston, Ph.D., R.N., Master of Science in Family Health Nursing and Nursing Education, Dean of the College of Nursing at the University of Phoenix