When IUDs Fail or Become Misplaced: Risks to Pregnant Moms and Babies

IUD (intrauterine device) birth control implants don’t always stay put. This may not come as a surprise, given the many lawsuits brought against the Mirena IUD for this reason. But when IUDs become misplaced, very serious risks and complications can arise. 

An IUD can move from its position at the top of the uterus, sometimes even perforating a woman’s uterus, and as one contraception clinic informs its patients, “as a result of perforation the IUD can pass through the uterine wall; this is the rarest and most dangerous of all IUD complications. There have been cases where an IUD has migrated to areas of the pelvis, abdominal cavity, gastrointestinal tract and bladder.” In such cases, an IUD must be removed surgically.

However, perhaps nothing is more surprising than when an IUD ends up coming out of a mother’s birth canal during delivery, clasped in her baby’s chubby hands.

This is exactly what happened in Vietnam on June 30, 2020. Obstetrician, Dr. Tran Viet Phuong, said he couldn’t help but snap a picture and post it on Facebook. This picture has since gone viral, as it’s a remarkable occurence. “After delivery, I thought him holding the device was interesting, so I took a picture. I never thought it would receive so much attention,” said Phuong.

This beautiful, full-term baby boy now joins two other siblings, and he and his mother are both completely healthy. The 34-year-old mother had had the birth control device inserted into her uterus two years prior and was surprised to learn that the device failed to prevent her getting pregnant. Most sources tout that IUDs are more than 99% effective at preventing pregnancies, although others assert that the failure rate is between 1% and 3%. Given how many women have IUDs, those who become pregnant are more than a few people.

There are a number of stories of unexpected pregnancies with an IUD (another similar story went viral in 2017), and Dr. Phuong’s photo tells just one of them.

Getting pregnant while on the IUD: Health risks to mothers

However positively the story turned out for Dr. Phung’s patient, it is important to realize that there is not always a happy ending for malfunctioned intrauterine devices. 

Conceiving a child due to a failed IUD happens more than one might expect; for one, it’s a data point that’s essential to understanding how birth control effectiveness rates are determined. And when women get pregnant while on the IUD, it presents a whole host of serious health risks for both the mother and baby. Unfortunately, few people understand these risks. In fact, I did not see any IUD risks mentioned by the many news outlets that reported on Dr. Phuong’s photo.

The foremost risk of conceiving while using an IUD is, perhaps, developing an ectopic pregnancy, or a pregnancy that occurs outside the uterus (most commonly in the fallopian tubes, but also occurring on the cervix, ovary or abdomen). As an ACOG clinical bulletin explains, “The use of an IUD or implant does not increase the absolute risk of ectopic pregnancy,” but “if pregnancy does occur with an IUD in place, the pregnancy is more likely to be ectopic.” 

Clinical studies have even shown that half of pregnancies while on the Mirena IUD may be classified as ectopic pregnancies. An ectopic pregnancy almost always results in death for the baby (it is often diagnosed as a miscarriage), and it poses serious, life-threatening risks to the mother.

Risks to babies from conceiving on the IUD

Among the other risks for a woman who conceives while using an IUD are having a baby with a low birth weight, bacterial infections, or loss of the baby. In a 2018 study called “Perinatal Outcomes of Pregnancies in Women Who Conceived While Using an IUD” that looked at over 200,000 deliveries between 1991 and 2014, one percent of the women who delivered babies had an IUD removed early in the pregnancy, while six percent retained their IUD throughout their pregnancy. 

The study found that 14.3% of the women who removed their IUD and 14.1% of the women who retained their IUD had preterm deliveries, versus only 6.8% or the women who had preterm deliveries without an IUD. According to the Mayo Clinic, babies born prematurely are more likely to develop chronic health issues, infections, asthma, and feeding problems than babies who are delivered at full term. 1.3% of the women in the study who removed their IUD and 12.1% of the women who retained their IUD delivered babies under five pounds, versus 6.6% of women without an IUD.

Nearly 5% of the women who removed their IUD and 2.7% of the women who retained their IUD developed a bacterial infection (or Chorioamnionitis), versus the only 0.6% of women who developed an infection without an IUD. The Cleveland Clinic defines Chorioamnionitis as “a serious condition in pregnant women in which the membranes that surround the fetus and the amniotic fluid are infected by bacteria,” which can lead to infections in both the mother and child, often resulting in a preterm delivery.

Finally, the study revealed that 2% of women who removed their IUD and 1.3% of women who retained their IUD lost their babies, versus the 0.5% of women without an IUD whose babies died. While this is not a staggering percentage, it is nonetheless still concerning, as any risk of death is concerning.

Weighing the risks of IUDs vs other birth control methods

Despite the IUD’s well-advertised success rates at pregnancy prevention, it’s vital that women are aware of the potential risks of having intrauterine devices implanted in their bodies as birth control, including knowing the risks and complications involved when an IUD fails and a woman becomes pregnant using one. 

Women need to know that there’s a lot more to IUDs than their doctors may know or share with them. Like any form of birth control, IUDs aren’t foolproof, and they aren’t always safe. 

Women concerned about IUD risks can learn more about side-effect-free family planning options—options that, while scientifically backed, one’s gynecologist may not be as well-versed in as pharmaceutical options.

The viral story of the baby holding his mother’s failed IUD is a somewhat ironic story about a beautiful baby defying the odds—but it may also be a story of caution since the mother and her child were some of the lucky ones. Let this story serve as a reminder that not every failed IUD story ends well, and that women deserve to know the whole truth about the devices being put into their bodies.

Madeleine Coyne is a writer at Natural Womanhood.

Photo / Hai Phong International Hospital