Estimating the time of death in stillborn fetuses: III. External fetal examination; a study of 86 stillborns

Obstet Gynecol. 1992 Oct;80(4):593-600.


Objective: To determine how accurately the time of fetal death can be predicted from the extent of external maceration in a stillborn fetus.

Methods: Autopsy photographs of 86 stillborns with well-timed deaths were studied retrospectively. Sixty randomly chosen fetuses (learning set) were assessed unblinded to develop proposed gross criteria for timing fetal death; 26 fetuses (test set) were then randomly and blindly assessed to test the accuracy of the proposed criteria.

Results: The two earliest changes in the learning cases were areas of desquamation measuring at least 1 cm in diameter and brown-red discoloration of the umbilical cord stump. Both changes occurred primarily in fetuses with death-to-delivery intervals of 6 or more hours. Other early changes included desquamation involving the face, abdomen, or back (12 or more hours); desquamation involving 5% or more of the body surface (18 or more hours); brown skin discoloration (24 or more hours); and a moderate or severe extent of desquamation (24 or more hours). The only late change that correlated with a specific duration of intrauterine retention was mummification (2 or more weeks). When the 26 test fetuses were randomly and blindly assessed using these gross criteria, 18 (69%) were classified correctly with respect to the approximate time of fetal death.

Conclusion: External fetal examination is useful for estimating the time of death in many stillborns; this information may be helpful when a complete autopsy cannot be performed.

MeSH terms

  • Autopsy
  • Female
  • Fetal Death / pathology*
  • Gestational Age
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Observer Variation
  • Predictive Value of Tests
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Skin / pathology*
  • Skin Pigmentation
  • Time Factors