During pregnancy, your heart works extra hard to pump blood to you and your baby. The extra stress can reveal issues with your heart health that may have gone unnoticed before you got pregnant.

Cardiovascular issues in women of childbearing age are uncommon, according to Katie Berlacher, MD, cardiologist, UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute, and director, UPMC Magee-Womens Heart Program. However, women who suffer from certain heart-related conditions during pregnancy are at a greater risk of cardiovascular disease later in life.

The toll that pregnancy takes on your body also can cause new heart issues to emerge. These problems can become evident during pregnancy, in labor and delivery, and up to a year after childbirth.

Read on to learn more about heart health for new and expectant moms.

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How Can You Keep Your Heart Healthy While You’re Expecting?

There are simple steps to stay heart-healthy while pregnant. You are in a good place if you ate a healthy diet and exercised regularly before conceiving. But it’s not too late to incorporate healthy changes when you become pregnant.

Eat frequent nutritious meals

Foods to eat during pregnancy include:

  • Calcium-rich foods (milk, yogurt, and leafy greens).
  • Fruit and vegetables for a wide range of vitamins and minerals.
  • Healthy proteins (eggs, fish, chicken, meat, tofu, and beans).

Follow your doctor’s instructions on medications and prenatal vitamins

Some medications are harmful to a growing baby. Make sure to check with your doctor about your current list of medications, vitamins, and supplements.

You will also need to take prenatal vitamins during pregnancy. If you are trying to get pregnant, you can start taking a prenatal vitamin before you conceive. Look for prenatals with key nutrients, including:

  • Choline.
  • Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
  • Folic acid.
  • Iodine.
  • Iron.
  • Vitamin D.

Stay moderately active

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity per week during pregnancy and the postpartum period. Exercise can offer a range of benefits, including:

  • Boosting energy levels.
  • Easing aches and pains.
  • Helping with postpartum depression.
  • Improving sleep.
  • Keeping weight gain in a healthy range.
  • Lessening the likelihood of premature birth and C-section.
  • Lowering the risk of gestational diabetes and high blood pressure.
  • Making postpartum recovery faster.

“Just because you’re pregnant, it doesn’t mean you can’t be active,” Dr. Berlacher says. “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.”

It’s best to listen to your body and modify your activity as needed as your pregnancy progresses. Remember to stay hydrated.

What Are Pregnancy-Related Heart Conditions?

Pregnancy and heart health are closely connected. Gestational diabetes, preeclampsia, and pregnancy-induced hypertension are some heart conditions that can develop while you are expecting.

Preeclampsia

Preeclampsia is hypertension that’s unique to pregnant women and those who have recently given birth. Pregnancy hypertension can strike even if you have no history of high blood pressure.

Preeclampsia affects the blood supply to the placenta, which can affect your baby’s growth. In some cases, it can lead to preterm birth or even stillbirth. While your baby is no longer at risk after the delivery, postpartum preeclampsia can still affect your organs. It can cause a stroke or even death.

Certain factors increase your risk of getting preeclampsia, including:

  • Being age 40 or over.
  • Being overweight or obese.
  • Being pregnant with multiples.
  • Family history of preeclampsia.
  • High blood pressure before pregnancy.
  • Preeclampsia during a prior pregnancy.

Gestational diabetes

Gestational diabetes is a form of diabetes that can happen during pregnancy. It is most likely to occur around the 24th week. It develops when your body doesn’t produce enough insulin — the hormone that regulates blood sugar.

Insulin moves glucose (sugar) from your blood into your cells. Without adequate insulin, too much sugar stays in your blood. High blood sugar is dangerous for you and your baby.

Risk factors for gestational diabetes include:

  • Being older than 25.
  • Body mass index (BMI) over 25.
  • Family history of diabetes.
  • Having polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS).
  • Having prediabetes (an A1C greater than 5.7).
  • History of gestational diabetes.
  • History of heart disease or metabolic syndrome (high triglycerides, low HDL cholesterol, and high blood pressure).
  • Sedentary lifestyle.

Pregnancy-induced hypertension

If you have pulmonary hypertension during pregnancy, arteries in your heart and lungs cannot keep up with your extra blood volume. As a result, both you and your baby are at risk of inadequate blood flow and oxygen.

While any new mother can develop high blood pressure during pregnancy, these factors can increase your risk:

  • Being a woman of color.
  • Being overweight or underweight.
  • Having a prior medical condition, such as diabetes or chronic high blood pressure.
  • Having preeclampsia or another hypertension disorder during a prior pregnancy.
  • Having your first baby after age 40.
  • Previously giving birth to twins, triplets, or more babies.

What Can New Moms Do for Heart-Health?

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

Though you’re occupied with new motherhood, take time to schedule regular appointments with your primary care physician. See a cardiologist for a preventive screening if you have specific questions about your cardiac risk.

“After women give birth, the focus is on the baby,” Dr. Berlacher says. “They’ll see their ob-gyn to talk about things like postpartum contraception, but typically they only have one or two follow-up appointments.”

Stress and lack of sleep may be the biggest challenges to a new mom’s health, Dr. Berlacher says. That may contribute to developing heart disease later in life.

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

Dr. Berlacher says new research from UPMC 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 says. “Which is really exciting.”

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .

About UPMC Magee-Womens

Built upon our flagship, UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital in Pittsburgh, and its century-plus history of providing high-quality medical care for people at all stages of life, UPMC Magee-Womens is nationally renowned for its outstanding care for women and their families.

Our Magee-Womens network – from women’s imaging centers and specialty care to outpatient and hospital-based services – provides care throughout Pennsylvania, so the help you need is always close to home. More than 25,000 babies are born at our network hospitals each year, with 10,000 of those babies born at UPMC Magee in Pittsburgh, home to one of the largest NICUs in the country. The Department of Health and Human Services recognizes Magee in Pittsburgh as a National Center of Excellence in Women’s Health; U.S. News & World Report ranks Magee nationally in gynecology. The Magee-Womens Research Institute was the first and is the largest research institute in the U.S. devoted exclusively to women’s health and reproductive biology, with locations in Pittsburgh and Erie.