Pregnancy, birth, and the newborn stages are joyous and important times. But women also face physical and mental stress in the pregnancy and recovery period. Pregnancy affects women’s heart function, breathing, digestion, mood-regulating hormones, and much more.
Maternal health refers to the health of women:
- During pregnancy.
- During labor and birth.
- In the postpartum period.
Women are at an increased risk of disease and death in all three of these stages. Recent data shows that approximately 20 out of 100,000 women in the United States die each year due to pregnancy-related complications (this number is even higher for pregnant people of color). These may include causes of death such as heart attacks, strokes, and bleeding.
During pregnancy, some people may develop a new mental or physical health condition. Up to 9% of pregnant women develop gestational diabetes. Up to 4% develop a heart- or blood vessel-related disease. Nearly 1 in 8 women experience symptoms of postpartum depression.
Strong maternal health supports reduce these risks. These include access to healthy food, psychosocial supports, and equitable health care.
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Race and Age Affect Maternal Health
Maternal mortality rates among Hispanic women, Asian women, Pacific Islander women, and white women are similar. However, Black, American Indian, and Alaska Native women face increased risks of pregnancy-related death. For Black women, the maternal mortality rate is 3 times higher than that of white women. For American Indian and Alaska Native women, the rate is 2 times higher.
These higher rates reflect poorer access to health care and other societal supports. Black women and other women of color are also more likely to face discrimination in health care.
The U.S. government and a wide range of health care organizations are working to address this gap. Initiatives include improved access to care, anti-bias training, addressing current and historic inequalities, extended health coverage, and more.
Maternal health outcomes are also associated with increased age. Women over 40 have 6 times the risk of dying during or after pregnancy or birth than women who are under 25. Pregnant and postpartum women in that age group are also at a greater risk of gestational diabetes, heart problems, stroke, and postpartum depression. Pregnant and postpartum women 35 and older should see their health provider often.
How Health Care Can Improve Maternal Health
Great first steps to improving maternal health include encouraging them to be their own advocate, listening to patients, using doulas, and connecting women to health care in the family planning and early pregnancy stages. Though often overlooked, continuing care during the postpartum period is also an important way to support maternal health.
Nurses, midwives, doulas, dietitians, and doctors can help women eat healthy, exercise, and avoid stress. This lowers their risk of pregnancy-related complications throughout pregnancy and beyond.
Blood pressure and weight information can help recognize early signs of pregnancy or postpartum complications. It can also determine treatments, prevention strategies, and monitoring that stop or reverse them.
It’s important for women to continue to see health providers during the postpartum period. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends women see obstetric care providers within three weeks of birth.
ACOG also recommends at least one more visit no later than 12 weeks after birth. In this visit, the health provider should screen for postpartum depression.
American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Optimizing postpartum care. Link
American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. ACOG Practice Bulletin No. 212: Pregnancy and Heart Disease. Link
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Depression Among Women. Link
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Diabetes During Pregnancy. Link
The Commonwealth Fund. Maternal mortality in the United States: A Primer. Link
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Healthy women, healthy pregnancies, healthy futures: Action plan to improve maternal health in America. Link
For more than a century, UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital has provided high-quality medical care to women at all stages of life. UPMC Magee is long-renowned for its services to women and babies but also offers a wide range of care to men as well. Our patient-first approach ensures you and your loved ones get the care you need. Nearly 10,000 babies are born each year at Magee, and our NICU is one of the largest in the country. Our network of care – from imaging centers to hospital services – provides care throughout Pennsylvania and Maryland, giving you a chance to get the expert care you need close to home. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recognizes UPMC Magee as a National Center of Excellence in Women’s Health, and the Magee-Womens Research Institute is the largest research institute in the U.S. devoted exclusively to women’s health and reproductive biology.