And how we all help spread that painful myth.
Fact: The vast majority of miscarriages are caused by chromosomal abnormalities in the embryo. It's impossible to predict or avoid them—they just happen. Yet far too many women place the blame on themselves. According to a new survey by fertility tracking company Ava, more than a quarter of women who have lost a pregnancy believe they may have done something to cause it.
The statistic is heartbreaking, but it doesn't surprise experts. “It is a natural tendency for women to look back and try to find an association between something they did and the loss,” says Zev Williams, MD, PhD, chief of the division of reproductive endocrinology and infertility at the Columbia University Medical Center. He noted many women will pinpoint an outlier event—say, a recent ski trip, or a work deadline—and attribute the miscarriage to that.
It's common to assume that stress played a role. Indeed, Ava's online poll (which included more than 2,500 respondents) found that 68% of women believe that stress can cause a pregnancy loss. But research shows otherwise, says Dr. Williams. “Most studies looking into stress have found that while it does play a role in terms of getting pregnant, stress does not cause miscarriages.”
Why do so many women think they are at fault? There are a handful of reasons, says Dr. Williams. “Many well-intentioned friends and family can inadvertently contribute to the misconception that stress causes miscarriage by saying things like, 'You need to just relax.'"
Even the word "miscarriage" fosters self-blame and guilt: “The language we use colloquially implies that the woman mis-carried the pregnancy, as though she could have carried it better,” says Dr. Williams. “ I prefer to use the term pregnancy loss, because it does not imply that the woman did something wrong, and it acknowledges the reality that this is a genuine loss.”
For obvious reasons, self-blame can make a pregnancy loss even more painful, which is why Dr. Williams strongly advocates for testing miscarriage samples for genetic abnormalities: “When they are found, it becomes very clear that there was nothing that the woman did wrong to cause the loss to happen.”
He also advocates for more education around pregnancy loss, which occurs in 10 to 15% of known pregnancies. "The void of knowledge surrounding causes of miscarriage has often been filled with misconception. Greater knowledge will help prevent this." And we all can help set the record straight, says Dr. Williams: "It’s useful for family, friends, and health care providers to let women know that they are sorry for their loss—but it wasn’t their fault.”