UK research mirrors New Zealand stillbirth findings

University of Auckland research that showed that women who go to sleep on their side have a lower risk of a still birth has been repeated in the UK with similar results.

The Midlands and North of England Stillbirth Study (MiNESS) found that women who go to sleep in the supine (lying on the back) position have a 2.3-fold increased risk of late stillbirth (after 28 weeks’ gestation) compared with women who go to sleep on their side.

The study, Association between maternal sleep practices and late stillbirth – findings from a stillbirth case-control study have just been published in the British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecologists (BJOG). This study was carried out in collaboration with Auckland researchers and was co-funded by Cure Kids, New Zealand’s leading child health research charity.

Led by Professor Alexander Heazell, Clinical Director at the Tommy’s Stillbirth Research Centre at St Mary’s Hospital, Manchester, MiNESS is the largest study to examine maternal sleep and late stillbirth. It looked into 291 pregnancies that ended in stillbirth and 735 women who had a live birth. It confirms findings from earlier studies in New Zealand that, in the third trimester (after 28 weeks of pregnancy), women who go to sleep on their back are more likely to have a stillbirth.

The women were recruited between April 2014 and March 2016. Around one in 225 pregnancies in the UK end in stillbirth. The study has found if all pregnant women in the UK went to sleep on their side in the third trimester, around 130 babies’ lives could be saved each year. Internationally, this advice has the potential to save up to 100,000 babies a year.

The UK study has also created a public health campaign, the Sleep On Side campaign, led by the charity Tommy’s to educate women about the risk of going to sleep on their back in late pregnancy and encouraging women in the last three months of pregnancy to go to sleep on their side. It includes a YouTube clip How to sleep safely during pregnancy #SleepOnSide.


Earlier this year, the New Zealand Multi-Centre Stillbirth Study, led by Professor Lesley McCowan, Head of the University’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, published their results that found going to sleep on your back is associated with a 3.7-fold increase in overall risk of late stillbirth, independent of other common stillbirth risk factors.

“This simple intervention has the potential to reduce late stillbirth in New Zealand by approximately 9 percent,” Professor McCowan says, and could prevent the deaths of approximately 15 unborn babies annually in New Zealand.

“Our findings make sense as lying on the back in late pregnancy is associated with physical effects that can compromise the baby’s wellbeing. These include a reduction in the mother’s cardiac output (the amount of blood pumped by the heart per minute), a reduced blood flow to the uterus, and lower oxygen levels in the baby.”

Now Professor McCowan and Professor Ed Mitchell, who were two of the five New Zealand academics who contributed to the UK paper, have funding from Cure Kids to start a public awareness campaign about going to sleep position in late pregnancy here in New Zealand.

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