The 1854 Registration Act obliged parents to register a child's birth within 21 days, even if the baby died soon after birth. But stillborn babies were left out of the system, and were not registered. Registration was mainly intended for legal purposes, but under British law, stillborn babies were not considered to have a legal existence, and so it was decided not to register them.
This decision created several problems. It was difficult for statisticians to estimate the number of stillborn children, and this affected their ability to calculate rates of birth, infant death and deaths of mothers in childbirth. There was also a fear that parents were claiming their children had been stillborn, even if they had actually been born alive. It saved parents time and trouble if they did not have to register the birth of a baby who had lived for only a short time, and even more importantly, they saved the cost of a formal funeral, a significant expense for poor families at a time when the deaths of young children were very common. A stillborn baby's body could be disposed of without ceremony (in some cases the doctor persuaded parents to let him take it away for research purposes). A more sinister fear was that some infant deaths were being disguised as stillbirths to conceal neglect, or even murder. If the registrar was not involved, it might be easier to cover up the crime.
In the early twentieth century there was much public and political anxiety over the falling birth rate. Although adults were living longer, the death rate of infants remained very high, and deaths of mothers in childbirth did not diminish. Further, the Scots seemed to have a worse problem than many other Western nations. As late as 1936, the infant death rate in Scotland was 82 per 1,000 live births, compared to 59 in England and Wales, and 31 in New Zealand. Doctors wanted a better understanding of childbearing and infant death in order to reduce this great loss, and felt that stillbirths should be registered so that the true scale of the problem would be known. Some politicians (including the 'Red Clydeside' MPs in the 1920s), objected because they saw stillbirth as a private tragedy that parents should not have to register, and they did not see how such registration could help doctors. But the majority of politicians and doctors agreed that it was only by registering this problem and bringing attention to it that such alarming figures could be reduced. By the inter-war period, the infant death rate was falling, but most of this decline was due to survival of babies older than three months, because of better living conditions, and possibly because of the help now available from mother and baby clinics. The death rate of very young babies was not falling, and doctors argued that they should be classed together with stillbirths, since both were caused mainly by problems in the womb, and particularly by the health of the mothers.
The stillborn child did not have to be registered in Scotland until 1939, nearly a century after the introduction of birth and death registration, and more than a decade later than the registration of stillbirth in England and Wales (1926). The Registration of Still-Births (Scotland) Act, 1938, applied to any child born after the 28th week of pregnancy which did not breathe or show any other signs of life. The registrar was to take note of when and where the child was born, its sex, the name of the parents and rank or profession of the father, their date and place of marriage, when and where the marriage was registered, and the signature of both the informant and the registrar. If a doctor or certified midwife had attended the birth or seen the body of the child shortly afterwards, they were to sign a certificate confirming that the child had been stillborn and giving the cause of the stillbirth, if they were able to tell. Parents had three months to register a stillbirth, compared to the three weeks they had to register a live birth. Registration of stillbirths, unlike ordinary births, remained a private matter. The stillbirth register was separate from the ordinary birth register, and was not open for public inspection. Registration of stillbirths was just one of the factors that aided attempts to reduce infant mortality, which in Scotland now stands at fewer than five deaths per 1,000 live births.