Understanding Second Trimester Miscarriage | Family Planning | Obstetrics and Gynecology | UC Davis Health

Understanding Second Trimester Miscarriage

Pregnancy loss in the second trimester can be the result of a very preterm delivery (like a spontaneous miscarriage in the second trimester) or death of the fetus (called a fetal demise). About 2-3% of pregnancies will be lost in the second trimester, a rate that is much lower than in the first trimester. Once a pregnancy gets to about 20 weeks gestation, less than 0.5% will end in a fetal demise.

A loss at this time in pregnancy is most often a hard and sad experience. Many friends and family already know you are pregnant. What do you do? What do you say? For most women and their partners, the process of grieving is no different than losing a person who has been in your life for some time. You often have hopes and dreams about your child before that child is born, and losing the pregnancy in the second or third trimester is certainly a loss for a family.

Why see a UC Davis Health specialist?

Our specialists can evaluate you quickly in an office setting. Any laboratory testing or ultrasound examinations that need to be done can be performed easily and conveniently. We perform our own ultrasound examination in the office and can share the results with you immediately. Treatment of a second trimester loss is very different than early miscarriage, and our specialists can provide all options to you and your family. We understand that losses at this time require both emotional and medical support. We are happy to review all treatment options but also know that you may need some time. It is also important for you to know that a fetal demise in the second trimester is not a medical emergency so treatment is not immediately indicated.

If you are having very heavy vaginal bleeding or are feeling very sick, you should go to the Emergency Room to see our physicians.

Symptoms of a second trimester loss

  • Bleeding: Most commonly, bleeding is a sign of a problem with the placenta and does not indicate a fetal demise. But, bleeding can be a sign that the cervix is opening without labor (called cervical insufficiency). With cervical insufficiency, the cervix begins to open early without contractions; as the cervix opens more, contractions then follow.
  • Cramping: Pregnancy losses in the second trimester can be due to early labor.
  • Loss of fetal movement: This can indicate a fetal demise. Most women can feel the baby moving by the 20th week. If the baby has been moving and you no longer feel that same movement, it is important to contact the doctor’s office immediately to make sure the baby is fine. Decreased fetal movement is more commonly a sign that there is a problem with the pregnancy and only rarely does it mean the fetus has died.

Most women less than 20 weeks of pregnancy do not notice any symptoms of a fetal demise.

The test used to check for a fetal demise in the second trimester is an ultrasound examination to see if the baby is moving and growing. Fetal demise is diagnosed when the ultrasound examination shows no fetal heart activity.

What causes a second trimester loss?

The causes of a pregnancy loss in the second trimester are very different than early pregnancy loss. There are medical conditions that increase the risk for cervical insufficiency or preterm labor before viability which include:

  • Prior surgery to the cervix
  • Use of illicit drugs, especially cocaine
  • Fetal abnormalities (genetic or structural problems)
  • Uterine infection (this is more common in developing countries and less common in the United States)
  • Physical problems with the uterus, including fibroids or abnormalities in the shape of the uterus

There are also some medical conditions that are associated with fetal death in the second trimester which include:

  • Fetal abnormalities (genetic or structural problems)
  • Poorly controlled maternal cnoditions like thyroid disease, diabetes or hypertension
  • Lupus (systemic lupus erythematosus)
  • Autoimmune or genetic conditions that increase a woman’s risk of forming blood clots in her legs or her lungs (like antiphospholipid syndrome)
  • Very early pre-eclampsia or eclampsia of pregnancy
  • Trauma

The specialists at UC Davis Health will review with you what testing is indicated to help learn more about why a second trimester loss occurred. Despite the testing that is available, about half of the time there is no identifiable reason for a second trimester loss. We can work with you to figure out what may be helpful with a next pregnancy or to learn more about medical issues that are important for your future.

Treatment of a second trimester loss

It is typically not safe for a woman to wait for the pregnancy to deliver on its own with a second trimester loss. There is a high chance of having significant bleeding when a pregnancy in the second trimester delivers on its own at home. In the case of fetal demise, a dead fetus that has been in the uterus for four weeks can cause changes in the body’s clotting system. These changes can put a woman at a much higher chance of significant bleeding if she waits for a long time after the fetal demise to deliver the pregnancy. 

Our doctors are committed to providing all available treatment options. Testing to figure out the cause of the pregnancy loss can be performed regardless of the method a woman chooses for termination.

We understand that a second trimester loss is an emotional and stressful time and we want to ensure that the emotional needs of you and your family are met as well. We understand this is a time that you need support and we are sensitive to your wishes for remembrances and religious preferences. We will discuss these issues with you before any treatment. 

When a diagnosis of fetal demise in the second or third trimester is made, options include:

  • Surgical evacuation: This procedure, called a dilation and evacuation, can be performed in the second trimester, typically up to about 24 weeks. Surgical evacuation is the most common treatment women choose and involves removing the pregnancy through the cervix in the operating room while you are asleep. The cervix needs to be opened about 1-2 inches in diameter. The doctors can use different ways to open the cervix based on how far along the pregnancy is and your individual circumstance. The goal is to provide the safest care for each patient. After a surgical evacuation, normal activity can typically be resumed the following day. Opening or preparing the cervix for surgical evacuation of the pregnancy may involve:
    • Medicines (tablets) that are put in the vagina a few hours to one day before the procedure.
    • Medicine (tablets) that you hold between your cheek and gums for 30 minutes before swallowing. You would use this medicine a few hours before the procedure.
    • Placing thin sticks in your cervix, called osmotic dilators, to absorb water from the cervix which causes the dilator sticks to swell slowly over 4-24 hours. Having the osmotic dilators placed is similar to getting a Pap test.

Labor induction: This treatment uses medicines to cause the uterus to go into labor. For women with pregnancies beyond 24 weeks, this is commonly the only option. If you choose this option, you will be in the Labor and Delivery Unit at UC Davis Medical Center and will have all of the same pain treatments available to you as a woman who is naturally in labor (like IV pain medications or an epidural). The treatment typically starts with swallowing a pill to make the uterus more sensitive to the medications to induce labor.  About 24 hours later, you are admitted to the Labor and Delivery Unit and will have medicine (tablets) put in the vagina every few hours to cause labor. Sometimes, women need medicine through an IV to also help get labor started. It may take 1-2 days for the uterus to go into labor and for the delivery to be complete. Up to 5% of women in the second trimester do not go into labor and need a surgical evacuation.

Your doctor will be able to explain more details about the pros and cons of each treatment.

After treatment of a second trimester loss

Bleeding may continue for several weeks after a labor induction but tends to be much lighter with a surgical evacuation. Any bleeding may change in color from bright red to pink or brown. Lower abdominal cramping in the few days after treatment is also common. You should contact a doctor right away if the bleeding gets heavier instead of lighter over time, if a fever develops, or if vaginal discharge or a strange or unpleasant vaginal odor occurs. Avoid intercourse, douching, or using tampons for one week. Regular activities can be resumed right away, based on how you feel. Importantly, if you want to delay getting pregnant, it will be very important to start an effective method of contraception.

FAQs about second trimester loss

This diagnosis is made when a woman has dilation of the cervix during the second trimester without having any contractions or signs of a uterine infection. Some studies suggest that some types of surgeries performed when women have advanced pre-cancerous changes in the cervix can increase the risk of cervical insufficiency. These surgeries include cervical conization (also known as a “cone biopsy”) or if a patient has had multiple Loop electrosurgical excision procedure (LEEP) procedures. With these surgeries, part of the cervix is removed to get rid of the pre-cancerous changes. Having these procedures increases the risk of having a second trimester loss by about 1%. In women who have these types of procedures, the chance of having cervical insufficiency is about 1.5%.

Our specialists will work with you to maximize your health status before you try to get pregnant again. For some women, this may mean treatment of a thyroid condition, improved control of diabetes, or changing medications being used for chronic illnesses. Some conditions may require blood thinners like aspirin or injectable medications that should be started early in the next pregnancy (after a normal pregnancy is seen with an early ultrasound exam).

It will be important to meet with a genetic counselor, if possible, before your next pregnancy, who can also review the details of the available tests. The counselor can also talk with you more about your history and your family history to make sure no genetic or familial medical problems are missed. There are a few different tests, all of which can be performed early in pregnancy, depending on what is right for you. Screening for some of the most common chromosomal abnormalities just from your blood (called NIPT or non-invasive prenatal testing). First trimester screening can be performed between 11 and 14 weeks which involves a blood test and an ultrasound examination. In some situations, chorionic villus sampling (a biopsy of the placenta) or expanded prenatal screening may be indicated. Our specialists and genetic counselors can work with you and your family to help you understand all of these tests and figure out what approach is right for you.

There is really no good information available to show the absolute right answer to that question. First, it may take a month or two to have any testing completed to help figure out why you had a second trimester loss. We know that it takes some time for your uterus and your body to get back to normal. The specialists at UC Davis usually recommend waiting at least three months after a second trimester loss before trying again to get pregnant.