Up to 600 stillborn babies could be saved each year with the aid of a measuring tape and a chart, experts say.

But NHS maternity departments are failing to implement the simple measure to reduce the devastating loss suffered by thousands of expectant parents, they say. Britain has one of the highest stillbirth rates in the developed world; there are more than 3,000 pregnancies affected a year. Affected women are delivered early. But the researchers found this did not increase mortality among the babies born prematurely.

The single largest risk factor is foetal growth restriction – a baby that is "small for dates". It is caused when there is a problem with the placenta preventing the foetus getting an adequate supply of nutrients. The condition increases the risk of a stillbirth four-fold, a study of 92,000 NHS births has found. But the problem often goes unrecognised in pregnancy, raising the risk to eight-fold compared with a normal growth pregnancy.

Professor Jason Gardosi and colleagues from the West Midlands Perinatal Institute in Birmingham write in the British Medical Journal that the stillbirth rate could be cut by 20 per cent, saving 600 lives a year.