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What is a Fetus Papyraceus?

Mary McMahon
Updated Jan 30, 2024
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A fetus papyraceus is a fetus in a multiple pregnancy which has died and become flattened through mechanical compression in the womb. The result resembles a scrap of parchment paper. Depending on the gestational age of the fetus, various developmental features such as limbs may be distinguishable. Such fetuses usually emerge during the process of labor alongside their siblings; a fetus papyraceus does not usually pose a risk to the other baby or babies involved in the pregnancy.

The death of fetuses in a multiple pregnancy is not uncommon. Frequently, it takes the form of vanishing twin syndrome, in which a fetus simply dies for no apparent or known reason. In most cases, the body of the mother reabsorbs the fetus, leaving few traces that it ever existed. However, in rare circumstances, the fetus may instead be flattened against the side of the uterus by the sibling or siblings, creating a fetus papyraceus.

Sometimes, a mother may not be aware that she was carrying multiples, because the additional fetus dies at such an early age. In these situations, the emergence of a fetus papyraceus during labor can be a bit startling. In other cases, a woman is aware that she lost one of the fetuses, in which case it may be traumatic, as she may have assumed that it would be reabsorbed by her body.

Depending on the feelings of the mother and her medical team, a fetus papyraceus may simply be disposed of along with the placenta, or it may be offered burial rites as a mark of respect. In either case, if parents want to find out why the fetus died, they must specifically request an autopsy or analysis of the fetus. It is not always possible to get conclusive results about the cause of fetal death, however, which is something that parents should be aware of.

The fetus papyraceus is a form of stillbirth, also known as an intrauterine fetal death. Although the baby never had a chance to live, the parents may want to grieve for the loss of their child. Many hospitals recognize the trauma associated with a stillbirth, offering counseling and support services to parents who experience stillbirth. In the case of a fetus papyraceus, the parents may have a healthy sibling to celebrate, but it is still appropriate to mark the passing of the fetus that didn't make it into the world.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon324789 — On Mar 12, 2013

I looked up this term because we lost our twin at 14 weeks. I'm now 34 weeks pregnant and still coming to terms with losing the twin and preparing for our son.

I've known since we found out the twin died (at 16 weeks) that what would happen is the fetus would "flatten". We've not been given any suggestion of a service - I've been told I'll deliver her in the third stage of labor along with the placenta and membranes.

She died so early that we don't even know if she is a girl; I just presume she was. But I saw her heartbeat four times in scans (And a fifth time, when it was gone.) I got to see her, and got a photo of her curled up, looking asleep - and I will choose to remember her that way and definitely do not want to see her as a fetus papyraceous. Although today I have seen what that looks like online, in a way I am glad to have seen it, so I know.

I am both glad and sad that she was too young for me to know the sex. It is good that I cannot view her as that much of a "life", but I am very sad not to be able to give her a memorial of some kind. Some way to mark that she was here, and that we love her.

By PinkLady4 — On Jun 26, 2011

@BoniJ - The thought of a potential baby being pushed up against the uterus walls and becoming like a piece of parchment paper is really heartbreaking.

My sister experienced a stillbirth many years ago. It was not a multiple birth. She and her husband were extremely sad and wondered how this could have happened. They had burial services for their baby, and grieved as one would with other deaths.

If I had a multiple birth in which one of the babies came out during labor as a fetus papyraceus, (especially if it had the beginnings of limbs), I would definitely choose to have a quiet service for the "baby" and bury him/her. I'm sure that I would have a mix of feelings, joy for the live newborn and despair and sadness for the one that was lost.

By BoniJ — On Jun 25, 2011

I wonder how mothers or potential mothers would feel if the fetus papyraceus did not reabsorb into the mother's body. If it was "born" with other healthy newborns, would the parents just briefly mourn the child who didn't make it, and concentrate on the joy of their healthy baby or babies?

Personally, I think that I would grieve the loss of the fetus papyraceus in a private personal manner, just being happy that I had a healthy baby or babies.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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