How New and Expectant Moms Can Take Care of Their Hearts

New moms have lengthy to-do lists — feedings, changing sleep schedules, and trips to the pediatrician, to name a few.

Even with all that multitasking, women often neglect one critical aspect of new motherhood — self-care.

“After women give birth, the focus is on the baby,” said Katie Berlacher, MD, cardiologist at the Heart and Vascular Institute of UPMC and director of the Magee Women’s Heart Program.

Learn more about the comprehensive care at the Magee-Womens Heart Program, part of the UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute.

“They’ll see their OB to talk about things like post-partum contraception, but typically they only have one or two follow-up appointments.”

Dr. Berlacher said cardiovascular issues in women of childbearing age are uncommon, though women who suffer from certain heart-related conditions during pregnancy are at a greater risk of cardiovascular disease later in life.

“New moms should know that in order to take care of your baby, you have to take care of yourself,” Dr. Berlacher said.

woman and baby

Heart Health for Pregnant Women

Dr. Berlacher said some women may experience chest pain, shortness of breath, and heart palpitations during pregnancy. Normal body changes are usually behind these symptoms. For example, your expanding uterus and rib cage may place additional pressure on your diaphragm, which may lead to shortness of breath.

Women who are diagnosed with pregnancy-related heart conditions, such as preeclampsia, gestational diabetes, and pregnancy-induced hypertension, are at a higher risk of suffering cardiovascular problems later in life.

Dr. Berlacher said most women can take simple steps to stay heart-healthy while pregnant: Stay moderately active, eat healthy, regular meals, and follow your doctor’s instructions on medications, such as prenatal vitamins.

“Just because you’re pregnant, doesn’t mean you can’t be active,” Dr. Berlacher said. “We just want you to be a little more cautious in terms of physical activity, no need to push to exhaustion or start training for your first marathon when you are pregnant.”

Pregnant women who experience fainting, extreme swelling, lightheadedness, or dizziness should discuss these symptoms with their obstetrician.

Heart Health for New Moms

Stress and lack of sleep may be the biggest challenges to a new mom’s health, Dr. Berlacher said, which may contribute to development of heart disease later in life. Though they may be occupied with new motherhood, women should still take time to schedule regular appointments with their primary care physician.  If they have specific questions about their cardiac risk, they should consider a preventive screening with a cardiologist.

“New moms need healthy ways to deal with stress,” Dr. Berlacher said. “Breathing, meditation, exercise, reading books. Find something that calms you.”

Dr. Berlacher said new research from Magee-Womens indicates that breastfeeding longer than six months may have some vascular health benefits for new moms who are at higher risk.

“It’s not well-understood yet, but we’re learning that lactation may hold benefits for new moms, not just babies,” she said. “Which is really exciting.”