Many women are all too familiar with miscarriage. If they haven't had one themselves, they most likely know someone who has. On average, 10 to 25 percent of all pregnancies result in miscarriage. This can be an extremely difficult experience for women and their families, resulting in grief, anger, sadness, and confusion. Understanding the facts can be helpful and even therapeutic, so we've spelled it all out in a way that makes sense.

Why do miscarriages happen?

Most of the time, the cause of miscarriage is unknown but many occur because of:

  • Chromosomal abnormality of the developing fetus. Something was wrong with the sperm or egg or the way they united and resulted in a mistake in the baby's developing chromosomes.  A miscarriage can be viewed as nature's way of preventing the development of a severely disabled child.

The APA lists these as other common causes:

  • Hormonal problems, infections or maternal health problems
  • Lifestyle (smoking, drug use, malnutrition, excessive caffeine and exposure to radiation or toxic substances)
  • Implantation of the egg into the uterine lining does not occur properly
  • Maternal age
  • Maternal trauma

Who's most likely to have a miscarriage?

Every healthy woman carries the same risk of miscarriage: 10-25 percent. Women older than 35, those who've had a previous miscarriage, and women with certain health conditions like lupus are at higher risk.

How do you know if you're having one?

The most common symptoms are bleeding, cramping or loss of previous pregnancy symptoms like nausea, breast tenderness, and weight gain.  Sometimes, the first notice a woman has is when her doctor can't detect a heartbeat or find a developing fetus on the ultrasound.   

What happens next?

As soon as a woman suspects trouble, she should contact her health provider; for example, when she notices a pink, brown or red discharge, or cramping. These symptoms don't always indicate miscarriage but only your health care provider will know for sure.  He/she might do blood work, ultrasound, or a pelvic exam to check for definitive signs of pregnancy.  If there's obvious bleeding, he/she might recommend allowing the fetus to miscarry without intervention.  In some instances, he/she might recommend a minor surgical procedure called a D&C (dilation and curettage) to empty the uterus of its contents.  This is done with anesthesia and rarely requires overnight hospitalization.

The next step is recovery and emotional healing. Grief is a normal part of the process and can't be rushed.  It helps to talk to other women who've shared the experience.

How can you avoid miscarriage? 

While miscarriages can be unpredictable, healthy living promotes better maternal health.  Women who eat a healthy diet, don't smoke, drink or do drugs; who exercise regularly but not in extreme circumstances and those who protect their abdomen from injury are healthier in general and better equipped to maintain a pregnancy.