Miscarriage: Why it happens, how it feels and where to find support

·5-min read
Woman having counselling support for miscarriage. (Getty Images)
There is a wide range of support available for miscarriage, including counselling services. (Getty Images)

More than one in five pregnancies ends in miscarriage, which is around a quarter of a million in the UK each year, according to the Miscarriage Association.

But despite miscarriages being so common, more still needs to be done to open up the conversation and ensure women and their partners get the support they may need afterwards to come to terms with their loss.

Whether the miscarriage happens in the early stages of pregnancy or later on, the potential impact on the woman (and her partner's) mental health shouldn't be underestimated.

Read more: John Legend says his relationship with Chrissy Teigen was 'tested' after miscarriage

The number of celebrities and those in the public eye talking about their personal experiences of miscarriage is going some way towards helping raise awareness.

For example, Meghan Markle opened up in 2020 about a miscarriage she endured in July that year. Writing in The New York Times, the Duchess of Sussex described how she felt a “sharp cramp” that made her “drop to the floor” with her then one-year-old son Archie in her arms.

As Meghan and Prince Harry endured “the pain of their loss”, it dawned on them “in a room of 100 women, 10 to 20 of them will have suffered from miscarriage”, but yet “the conversation remains taboo, riddled with (unwarranted) shame.”

Others who have since spoken out about miscarriage and the personal toll it has taken on them include Jessie J, Charlotte Dawson, Jodi Albert and others.

Here, experts explain why miscarriages happen, the potential emotional impact and the support available.

Why do miscarriages happen?

Close up of woman doctor touch patient show care and empathy telling bad results news, supportive female GP or physician cheer comfort upset clients at consultation in hospital, healthcare concept
Anyone who can conceive can miscarry – and often the cause is unknown. (Getty Images)

A miscarriage is defined as losing a pregnancy in the first 23 weeks. Beyond 24 weeks, the loss is considered a stillbirth.

Most miscarriages happen before a person even knows they are pregnant, according to the NHS. Among those who know they are expecting, around one in eight pregnancies end in miscarriage.

Losing three or more pregnancies in a row, defined as 'recurrent miscarriages', is far less common and affects around one in 100 people.

Read more: Charlotte Dawson shares devastating miscarriage: 'I'm heartbroken beyond words'

Many different factors are thought to contribute to a miscarriage, but sadly the cause is not usually identified, which can make the loss even more difficult to process.

Some women can't help but somehow blame themselves when it happens, worried that work stress, for instance, or having one alcoholic drink may have somehow played a part, but it's important to note that in the vast majority of cases, the miscarriage is completely unrelated to the expectant mother's lifestyle.

“The most asked question about miscarriage is, ‘Why did it happen?’,” says Dr Matthew Prior from Dr Fertility.

“The honest answer is we don’t know. Most miscarriages are likely due to a randomly-occurring genetic problem which is not compatible with life.”

Read more: How to support a friend who has had a miscarriage

Abnormal chromosomes are often to blame, with a baby being unable to develop if it has too many or not enough. Chromosomes contain tightly-packaged bundles of a person’s DNA.

More reassuringly, miscarriages tend to be a one-off event, with the majority of women going on to have a healthy pregnancy.

“Certain medical conditions have an increased risk of miscarriage, such as thyroid disease, diabetes and obesity,” added Dr Prior.

“Female age is the strongest predictor of miscarriage and the risk increases faster for women in their forties.”

Not smoking, drinking alcohol or using illicit drugs while pregnant does help to reduce the risk.

How you may feel after a miscarriage

Sad couple hugging.
Partners can experience post traumatic stress disorder after their other half has miscarried. (Getty Images)

Going through miscarriage can be very distressing, with many women experiencing guilt, shock or even anger.

“During a miscarriage, women’s physical and emotional experiences vary greatly,” said Dr Prior.

“Symptoms usually include pain and bleeding. These can be distressing, but often the emotional aspect of miscarriage outweighs the physical symptoms.”

But it is not just the person carrying the baby who feels the impact, of course.

Research by Imperial College London one in 12 (8%) of partners experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) three months after their other half goes through a miscarriage, while one in 25 are still experiencing symptoms nine months on.

PTSD symptoms can include flashbacks, nightmares, insomnia and anger outbursts.

“Baby loss can have a deep and lasting impact on both parents, and this [Imperial] study gives a voice to many who have suffered in silence, highlighting the profound consequences that can have for their mental health and wellbeing,” says Jane Brewin, chief executive of the baby loss charity Tommy’s.

“The message is clear; partners are vulnerable to the same psychological problems as mothers and specialist support must be made available to either or both bereaved parents.”

The support available

Lesbian couple at counselling.
There is no shame in needing help to heal from a miscarriage. (Getty image)

For Meghan, as she was holding Harry's hand in hospital, she felt, “the only way to begin to heal is to first ask, ‘Are you OK?’

Fertility nurse consultant Kate Davies, also from Dr Fertility, agrees, adding: “Opening up conversations around baby loss and not being fearful to talk, is what we need to foster more of.

“Only by creating a safe environment for women and men to share their stories, and ultimately their grief, will we ever get rid of the taboo that surrounds baby loss”.

If you've experienced pregnancy loss, support is available from hospital counselling services.

Numerous charities also have helplines offering support:

Some people also like to have a memorial for the baby they lost, like The Miscarriage Association’s stars of remembrance.

Watch: Britney Spears' fiancé Sam Asghari reflects on heartbreaking miscarriage

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