Trans-Tasman Research Could Help Prevent Stillbirth

A Trans-Tasman study is underway to understand more about the relationship between a woman’s going-to-sleep position in late pregnancy and stillbirth with a view to the development of consistent international public health messaging.

Lesley McCowan
Professor Lesley McCowan

The joint funding initiative between Red Nose and New Zealand child health research organisation, Cure Kids, is examining data collected from studies in the UK, Australia and New Zealand, to verify promising findings around modifiable risk factors to improve pregnancy outcomes, including maternal going-to-sleep position.

Study lead Professor Lesley McCowan from the University of Auckland recently published findings from a New Zealand study which has shown that going-to sleep supine – on one’s back – during the last three months of pregnancy increases the risk of stillbirth by nearly four times. The increased risk of stillbirth associated with going-to-sleep on the back in the last three months of pregnancy has now been shown in four published studies. The good news is that going-to-sleep position can be changed.

Professor McCowan says that is it now important to look at the combined datasets from New Zealand, Australia and the UK to investigate other risk factors for stillbirth. For example, is the risk of stillbirth increased in women who go-to-sleep on their right side compared to the left? Are there groups of babies who are at higher or lower risk of stillbirth when their mothers go-to-sleep on their back?

“Projects such as this are critical. They combine information from separate studies and examine them as a whole. The results obtained by combining information is stronger than the findings from individual studies alone. This approach may help to further determine what information is important for pregnant women to lessen their chance of having a stillborn baby”, said Prof McCowan.

Currently around 1,000 babies are lost each year to late stillbirth (beyond 28 weeks’ gestation) in New Zealand and Australia. Identification of modifiable risk factors for stillbirth has potential to significantly reduce these unexpected deaths.

“Early indications are that there may be some simple changes that women can make during late pregnancy to significantly reduce their chances of losing a baby to stillbirth. This study seeks to confirm and clarify these findings,” said Cure Kids CEO Frances Benge.

The funding collaboration between Cure Kids and Red Nose came about in an effort to combine resources to help improve the rates of perinatal and infant death in both countries.

Professor Paul Colditz, Red Nose Board Member, noted that while we have seen significant drops in the number of babies dying from sudden unexpected death in infancy (SUDI), stillbirth rates have remained stubbornly high.

“Understanding the factors behind what causes a seemingly healthy baby to die in late pregnancy is complex. We hope that the outcome of this research might help inform advice given to pregnant women and help prevent some of the tragic losses we currently see,” said Professor Colditz.

“The grief associated with the loss of a baby in late pregnancy is heart-breaking. This loss is often compounded by a lack of information around what caused the baby to die,” said Frances Benge.

A public health campaign, not unlike the safe sleep campaign in the 1990s to reduce cot death, is expected to be undertaken when the project is completed.

The project is expected to take two years to complete.