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Kirsty Williams AM article

Kirsty Williams, leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats, explains what steps Wales must take to reduce the stillbirth rate

Stillbirth has a devastating impact on families across Wales.

Despite advances in foetal medicine, around one in 200 pregnancies ends in stillbirth — a figure that hasn’t changed for more than 20 years.

Figures released just last week show the rate of stillbirth is actually rising in Wales, increasing from 4.6 per 1,000 births in 2008 to 5.3 per 1,000 in 2010.

I chaired an event at the National Assembly, in conjunction with the Holly Martin Still birth Research Foundation, in January, to discuss the issues surrounding stillbirth, and how we can look to reduce the number of stillbirths in Wales.

We had a moving presentation from Isobel Martin, whose daughter Holly was stillborn. She has recently set up a research foundation in Holly’s memory and is working closely with Dr Alex Heazell, an expert in stillbirth research at St. Mary’s Hospital in Manchester.

From that meeting, also attended by Dr Bryan Beattie – a consultant specialising in foetal medicine at University Hospital of Wales in Cardiff – a number of practical issues were raised that could begin to both help reduce the number of stillbirths and to offer more support and information for mothers.

One of the starkest and perhaps most basic of ways in which early signs of potential foetal distress can be identified is by a baby being underweight through poor growth.

Here in the UK, the way the size of a baby is measured is still rather rudimentary. We rely on a simple measurement of mum’s baby bump to determine the size of the foetus but more than half of poorly growing babies are missed and it is even less accurate if the mum is obese.

Bump size and shape depend on various things, such as how much fluid is being carried and which way the baby is lying.

In other European countries, like Germany, pregnant women are offered more regular scans so more accurate measurements can be taken, which could give a much clearer picture about whether a baby is developing healthily.

We also discussed how we can help avoid stillbirth at the end of pregnancy, especially for those women who need to be induced.

At the moment, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (Nice) recommends women are booked to come into hospital 10 to 12 days after their due date but there can often be unforeseen delays once in hospital, for example, emergency admissions can take priority.

We should examine the idea of admitting women to be induced a day or two earlier than we do now.

Research has shown that as you approach 15 days after a due date, the risk of stillbirth starts to climb significantly; admitting earlier can take into account unforeseen delays.

Another area where small policy changes could make a big difference is in the area of foetal movements. At around 18 to 20 weeks expectant mothers will begin to feel their baby moving, and these movement often form a pattern.

If we encourage expectant mums to monitor and record their baby’s movements, it could become easier to recognise changes in patterns, which could indicate whether the baby is becoming distressed.

Back in Cardiff Bay, I was delighted that as a part of its programme of one-day inquiries, the health and social care committee has decided to devote a day to look at reduced foetal movements, poor growth and stillbirth in Wales.

This is an issue that has lurked under the radar for too long, and I am glad we are bringing the heartbreak of stillbirth to the attention of policy makers in the hope we can help as many women as possible avoid the devastating effects it has.

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