Preventing stillbirth / Pioneering research give parents hope

Words by Sally Mavin

Image by David Lindsay

Universities UK’s #MadeAtUni nation’s lifesavers campaign is shining a light on some of the most important medical discoveries and innovations which save lives and keep us healthy. Professor Heazell’s work in preventing the tragedy of stillbirth has been recognised as one of their top 100 lifesavers.

Manchester is home to one of the only dedicated stillbirth research centres in the world, bringing tangible benefits to the region and beyond.

“Nothing prepares you for that amazing moment when your baby’s born. Shoshana was beautiful, she was perfect; she was everything that we would have wanted. But she was dead.”

Antonia and her husband Simon are one of 5,000 families in the UK each year who go home from hospital without their baby. In the UK a stillbirth is a baby that’s born with no signs of life after 24 weeks of pregnancy. One in 220 babies is stillborn.

And yet, there is little understanding as to why stillbirth occurs or how to prevent it, as research remains chronically underfunded. What’s more, care for mothers who are at risk of stillbirth, or for couples who have experienced the loss of their unborn child, is sorely limited.

“There are still a lot of misconceptions around stillbirth,” says Professor Alex Heazell, Director of the Tommy’s Stillbirth Research Centre at The University of Manchester, one of the only dedicated stillbirth research centres in the world.

“Many people believe there must have been something wrong with the baby in the first place. But in fact, one-third of stillbirths in the UK are babies that are born after over 36 weeks with no abnormality at all. People also believe that stillbirth is just one of those things and there isn’t anything we can do about it. But this simply is not the case.”

Doing more

Professor Heazell’s team are at the forefront of innovative research at the University that is creating tangible benefits to society, already resulting in a 19% reduction in the number of stillborn babies at St Mary’s Hospital in Manchester, where the research takes place.

A recent study conducted by Professor Heazell and his team perfectly demonstrates Manchester’s ‘bench to bedside’ approach. “In 31% of stillbirth cases, a mother will report that their baby had become less active in the days before their baby died,” he says. “We have shown in our laboratory that the placenta in these women is smaller, abnormally shaped and more damaged than those with normal movements.

“We believe that a reduction in babies’ movements is a sign that they are receiving less nutrients and oxygen from their mother because the placenta is working less effectively.”

This research has led to a major nationwide study to assess whether giving women information about reduced fetal movement and performing appropriate tests can help prevent stillbirths.

With support from the Mitchell Charitable Trust, Professor Heazell’s team are now exploring whether the opposite – increased fetal movement – could be linked to stillbirth. And thanks to the University’s strong history in pregnancy research, coupled with the city’s diverse population, Manchester is well-placed to continue preventing the tragedy of stillbirth on a global scale. 

A real difference

For Antonia and Simon, the birth of their second child was bittersweet. “How did we feel meeting Gabriel for the first time? Shock, relief, excitement,” says Simon, “but not complete joy. Because you know that he should have had an older sister. Our main hope for the future of stillbirth is that other parents never have to feel what we feel.

“Professor Heazell and his team have such an incredible understanding of women and what they need. They have the ability to make a real difference and see stillbirth as something they can change.”

We’re proud to support the #MadeAtUni life savers campaign. To find out more about how our research has changed lives, visit

Read about an interdisciplinary project led by MBA students at Alliance Manchester Business School to support the Rainbow Clinic, where Professor Heazell is lead clinician.


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