This site contains affiliate links, meaning that we earn a small commission for purchases made through our site. We only recommend products we personally use, love, or have thoroughly vetted.
There are many different types of miscarriage, and knowing the difference can help women understand what to expect as they’re experiencing loss.
While one in four women experience miscarriage, many people think pregnancy loss is something that happens to other people.
It’s perhaps for that reason, and our historical silence surrounding the subject, that we’re often caught completely off guard pregnancy loss, leaving us confused and wondering what to expect.
But what to expect is different for each type of loss.
In this article, we’ll tell you what each different type of miscarriage means and link to resources and stories to help you understand what to expect and what questions to ask.
What You Need to Know About Different Types of Miscarriage
Having experienced recurrent miscarriage, I can tell you from experience: all losses are different, even when they’re your own.
I have lost 4 pregnancies, and all were different types of miscarriage (though the types can overlap). I, personally, have experienced:
- Blighted ovum (which was also classified as a missed miscarriage)
- Chemical pregnancy (also classified as a spontaneous miscarriage)
- Ectopic pregnancy
- Spontenaous miscarriage
Since all losses are different and there are so many different types, there’s no easy way to know what to expect when miscarrying, which is why we’ve created a different article breaking that down for you.
Here’s what I want you to know in this one . . .
(1) Your experience is unique, and your emotions are valid
Different types of loss can overlap, but all losses are equally valid.
We have a tendency to compare our losses to other people’s, invalidating our own grief (if we even feel grief at all, as some women do not, and that’s also okay).
People also say things that make us feel like we shouldn’t feel as bad as we do. (Send those people to our article about what to say to someone who had a miscarriage.)
Don’t be surprised if people launch phrases at you beginning with “at least.”
- “At least you weren’t further along”
- “At least you know you can get pregnant”
- And so many more
These types of comments are meant to make you feel better, but what they often make us feel is that we aren’t supposed to experience the level of emotion we’re feeling.
I call bullshit.
Don’t compare your joys. Don’t compare your sorrows, and dear god, Girl, don’t compare your grief.
(2) Medical terminology is terrible, but it isn’t personal
The medical term for miscarriage is “abortion”, a word that often feels terribly at odds with the experience of women who are losing wanted pregnancies.
You may see this word creep in for all different types of loss:
- “Threatened abortion” for a miscarriage that is possible, but not definite
- “Spontaneous abortion” for a loss that begins suddenly with cramping or bleeding
- “Missed abortion,” for a symptom-free loss that is discovered via ultrasound
- “Habitual aborter” for someone who experiences recurrent pregnancy loss (that’s me)
This language, along with so many other words used in describing pregnancy loss, are often hurtful.
“Chemical pregnancy,” “blighted ovum,” and “incompetent cervix” are among the phrases describing miscarriage that I hear the most complaints about.
While I do think it’s important that we educate the medical community on how language negatively impacts the emotional experience of many pregnancy loss families, it’s still the language that’s used.
And for that reason, I want you, dear reader, to know that the words are not personal; they’ve been around for centuries, and they in no way indicate that you are in any way at fault for your losses. Your loss is NOT your fault!
11 Types of Miscarriage You Should Know About
Because there are so many different types of miscarriage, and medical advice, diagnosis, and treatment are different for each one, we’ll walk you through many of the different types and tell you:
- What it means
- What to expect
- Stories of women who have been through it
A terrifying term that catches many pregnant moms off guard, a woman is diagnosed with a threatened miscarriage when she experiences vaginal bleeding before 20 weeks of pregnancy. It can also be diagnosed following abdominal cramping in early pregnancy.
Receiving this diagnosis does not necessarily mean you will lose the pregnancy.
This is a common, but very upsetting, diagnosis, which occurs in about 1 in 5 pregnancies. But statistically speaking, it sounds worse than it is.
Research suggests that having a threatened miscarriage increases your risk of losing your pregnancy by 2.6%.
There is a potential association between early threatened miscarriage and preterm labor; research from the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology indicates a greater risk of labor beginning as early as 34 weeks, but with “no difference in mean birth weight.”
Admittedly, evidence is scant, so as much as possible, try to relax as best as possible even after your doctor utters these dreaded, confusing words.
A phrase many loss moms completely despise, a chemical pregnancy, sometimes called a “biochemical pregnancy” is described by the Miscarriage Association as “a very early pregnancy loss which usually happens just after the embryo implants (before or around 5 weeks).”
You’re likely to receive this diagnosis anytime you experience a spontaneous loss (meaning, you experience cramping and bleeding that ends your pregnancy) before the pregnancy has been verified by ultrasound.
Many people describe a chemical pregnancy as feeling like a heavy period, and some women experience chemical pregnancies without knowing they’re pregnant at all.
For many, though, heavy cramping, bleeding, and clotting are still common.
Here’s a frustrating question I get a lot: “Is a chemical pregnancy still a miscarriage?”
The answer: a resounding YES!
You got a positive pregnancy test, meaning a sperm and an egg came together and an embryo began to develop. What you bleed out is pregnancy tissue.
For my chemical pregnancy, my doctor was already monitoring my hCG levels, they were increasing properly, and she treated that loss the same as any other.
Please do not let others diminish your experience because your loss was early.
A blighted ovum, also known as an “anembryonic pregnancy” occurs when there is a fertilized egg , but an embryo does not develop inside the gestational sac.
The gestational sac may continue to grow. In this case, hCG levels can continue to rise and pregnancy symptoms may continue, despite the pregnancy no longer being viable.
Blighted ovums are most often discovered during ultrasound, sometimes leading to weeks of waiting to see if you might be earlier in your pregnancy than expected.
If you experience a possible blighted ovum, you can ask your doctor what your gestational sac is measuring to get a good idea as to whether you will lose your pregnancy.
This was my first type of loss–read my blighted ovum story for more about what to expect both medically and emotionally.
A missed miscarriage occurs when a pregnancy stops developing properly, but the loss is not recognized by the pregnant woman’s body.
Blighted ovums, when diagnosed, are often characterized as missed miscarriages.
A missed miscarriage is typically discovered during ultrasound and can be incredibly traumatic, making ultrasounds difficult for future pregnancies.
Missed miscarriage treatment usually includes either a dilation and curettage (D&C) or cytotec/misoprostol.
A spontaneous miscarriage occurs when a woman’s body begins cramping and bleeding, ultimately ending a pregnancy. This is what most people think of when they imagine a miscarriage.
According to the American Association of Family Physicians, “spontaneous [miscarriage], which is the loss of a pregnancy without outside gestation, affects up to 20 percent of recognized pregnancies.”
For more about what to expect during a spontaneous miscarriage, read our article on what to expect when miscarrying. We include an entire section on spontaneous miscarriage, including what to expect at different gestational ages.
An ectopic pregnancy occurs when an embryo implants in a woman’s fallopian tube instead of in her uterus.
Warning signs of ectopic pregnancy include light bleeding and sharp, stabbing pains on one side of the lower abdomen and/or plateaued hCG levels.
The Mayo Clinic explains that “if blood leaks from the fallopian tube, you may feel shoulder pain or an urge to have a bowel movement. Your specific symptoms depend on where the blood collects and which nerves are irritated.”
If an ectopic pregnancy is discovered early, such as through hCG blood testing, it may be treated with methotrexate, a drug my ER doctor said would “dissolve” the pregnancy. If discovered late, ectopic pregnancy may require surgery.
Ectopic pregnancy is very scary and can be extremely serious.
If it’s not discovered, and the embryo continues to grow, it can rupture a woman’s fallopian tube, leading to intense pain, heavy bleeding inside the abdomen, and possible sepsis.
If you have lightheadedness, fainting, or go into shock, you should seek emergency care immediately.
Read Beth’s ectopic pregnancy story here.
You may be diagnosed with an incomplete miscarriage if you lose a pregnancy spontaneously, with the use of cytotect/misopropstol, or by D&C, but your body retains fetal tissue.
If you experience an incomplete pregnancy, you may require a(nother) round of cytotec/misoprostol, or you may require a D&C.
It’s important to treat an incomplete miscarriage to avoid complications like infection, sepsis, or molar pregnancy.
Signs of an incomplete miscarriage, according to Tommys.org, an organization dedicated to making pregnancy safer for mamas and babies, include:
- Heavy bleeding
- Bleeding that does not stop
- Passing heavy blood clots
- Increased pain in the abdomen, which could feel like cramps
- A fever or flu-like symptoms.
If you experience ANY of these symptoms, or if your hCG levels don’t return to zero (you can make sure they’re extremely low using an ultra sensitive home pregnancy test), call your doctor right away.
A molar pregnancy is “a rare complication of pregnancy characterized by the abnormal growth of trophoblasts, the cells that normally develop into the placenta.”
If you experience a molar pregnancy, it will be one of two types:
- Complete molar pregnancy, and
- Partial molar pregnancy
Complete molar pregnancies have only parts of the placenta (no baby), and they form when the sperm fertilizes an empty egg. According to the American Pregnancy Association, the placenta will grow, and the woman’s body will produce hCG, but only an ultrasound can show that there is no fetus.
A partial molar pregnancy occurs when, according to the American Pregnancy Association, “the mass contains both the abnormal cells and an embryo that has severe birth defects. In this case, the fetus will be overcome by the growing abnormal mass rather quickly.”
Symptoms of molar pregnancy include:
- No fetal movement or heartbeat
- Increased hCG levels
- Early preeclampsia
- Rare complications such as thyroid disease
- Nausea and vomiting
- Spotting or bleeding
Vanishing Twin Miscarriage
Vanishing twin syndrome happens when a twin or multiple is miscarried in the uterus.
The fetal tissue is absorbed by the other twin, multiple, the placenta, or the mother, which gives the appearance of a “vanishing” twin (American Pregnancy Association).
Vanishing twin syndrome can only be detected through an ultrasound or through an examination of the placenta after birth.
Before the use of ultrasounds, many women did not know that they had miscarried a twin in utero.
Now, vanishing twin syndrome can be incredibly traumatic for families. For more information about the trauma of miscarrying twins (though not a vanishing twin), read Tasha’s story.
Termination for Medical Reasons (TFMR)
Termination for medical reasons (TFMR) is an incredibly personal form of miscarriage that’s often deeply misunderstood.
If your baby is diagnosed with a life-threatening medical condition, such as chromosomal abnormalities that would make it difficult for them to have a good quality of life, you may choose to terminate for medical reasons.
Families who choose TFMR might also do so to save the mother’s life due to extreme pregnancy complications or because a pregnancy is no longer viable.
Many parents experience a great deal of guilt over the agonizing choice to terminate for medical reasons. Speaking with a therapist or a trusted (and non-judgmental) religious counselor can often be very helpful for parents going through this.
Nicole’s late term abortion story is one example of the crisis of faith and family that can come with the decision to terminate for medical reasons. Faith’s story of termination for medical reasons is another.
- An early stillbirth occurs 20-27 weeks of completed pregnancy
- A late stillbirth occurs between 28 and 26 weeks of completed pregnancy
- A term stillbirth occurs between 37 or more completed pregnancy weeks
Medically speaking, the difference between a miscarriage and a stillbirth is that miscarriage happens before 20 weeks gestation, and stillbirth is the loss of a pregnancy after 20 weeks gestation.
Stillbirth affects about 1 in 160 births, which means that every year around 24,000 babies are stillborn in the U.S. (CDC), but there is still a lot of mystery surrounding why it happens.
We know that African American women are more likely to experience stillbirth, as well as women who have pre-existing conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity.
No matter your race or your level of health prior to stillbirth, it is NEVER your fault.
Stillbirth without a known cause is called “unexplained stillbirth.”
This form of stillbirth is more likely to happen later in a pregnancy, and you may choose to have an autopsy and/or other laboratory tests to determine the cause of death.
This is an incredibly personal decision, though, and one you will want to make with your partner and your healthcare team.
Miscarriage is different according to the type of miscarriage you experience.
Most miscarriages begin with cramping and bleeding; however, if you are having a missed miscarriage, you might not know that you are miscarrying until an ultrasound.
- With a blighted ovum, also known as missed miscarriage, you may not experience symptoms and will find out at an ultrasound appointment.
- With a chemical pregnancy, you will likely experience typical symptoms of miscarriage, such as cramping, bleeding, and some clotting, though the symptoms should be milder than a woman who experiences full labor contractions with a later loss
- With an ectopic pregnancy, you might experience extreme pain on one side of your abdomen and plateaued hCG levels. Be hyper aware of the signs of ectopic pregnancy, and see your doctor IMMEDIATELY if you think you are having one.
- With spontaneous miscarriage, you will likely experience typical symptoms of miscarriage, such as cramping, bleeding, and some clotting.
Always seek medical attention for any form of miscarriage. Never be afraid to be an advocate for yourself!
Frequently Asked Questions About Types of Miscarriage
There are many different types of miscarriage. The most common include chemical pregnancy, blighted ovum, missed miscarriage, spontaneous miscarriage, ectopic pregnancy, and incomplete miscarriage.
The most common type of miscarriage is a chemical pregnancy, but not all women know they’re pregnant yet, so they don’t necessarily know if they’re experiencing this type of miscarriage.
Roughly 95% of miscarriages occur during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. Losses are most common during the first 6 weeks, but women are not always aware of those pregnancies or losses.
Most miscarriages begin with typical miscarriage symptoms such as abdominal cramping and vaginal bleeding. Some women, however, don’t experience any typical signs of miscarriage and learn about their losses during an ultrasound–these are called “missed miscarriages” or can also be true of ectopic pregnancy.
What type of miscarriage did you experience? Tell us about your experience in the comments.
Katy Huie Harrison, PhD, is an author, mom, recurrent miscarriage survivor, & owner of Undefining Motherhood. She lives in Atlanta with her husband (affectionately known on the internet as “Husband,”) son (Jack), and dog (Charlotte). She believes our society puts too many expectations on women that make womanhood and motherhood restrictive. Her goal is to shift the paradigm about what it means to be a woman and mother, giving all women a greater sense of agency over their own lives. You can find Katy and her work featured in places like CNN’s Headline News, Romper, Scary Mommy, Demeter Press’s Motherhood and Social Exclusion, & more.