Pregnant woman at the doctor

Steps to quality prenatal care

September is National Infant Mortality Awareness Month.

Did you know that the United States has a higher infant mortality rate than Slovenia, Hungary and Cuba? Let's take a look at how you can reduce the risk of infant mortality through quality prenatal care.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), infant mortality is defined as the passing of an infant before his or her first birthday. The CDC notes that most causes of infant mortality in the United States result from maternal pregnancy complications, preterm and underweight babies, serious birth defects, SIDS and accidents or injuries. And while some contributors like birth defects are not preventable even with the best prenatal care, quality healthcare throughout a woman's pregnancy can greatly reduce the risk of preterm births and pregnancy complications that threaten the life of an infant.

What does prenatal care actually measure?

Pregnant women who trek to the doctor's office every few weeks know the routine by about halfway through the pregnancy — step on the scale, pee in a cup, measure blood pressure and listen for the heartbeat. It can all start to feel rote, time-consuming and expensive after a little while. So what do all those measures actually mean, and how can they help prevent infant mortality?

  • Weight checks — Stepping on the scale during pregnancy shouldn't be painful. Weight measures make sure a pregnant woman is gaining an appropriate amount of weight, which can reduce the risk of infant malnutrition or gestational diabetes, depending on a woman's gaining trends.
  • Blood pressure monitoring — The importance of blood pressure during pregnancy cannot be overstated, because hypertension can be very dangerous. Both baseline hypertension and gestational hypertension can sometimes lead to preeclampsia, which can cause early labor and is sometimes fatal for mother and baby.
  • Blood glucose checks — About halfway through a pregnancy, a pregnant woman is screened through a blood draw for oral glucose tolerance. This test is important to prevent consequences from undiagnosed gestational diabetes, which can complicate a newborn's delivery and early life.
  • Ultrasounds — An ultrasound isn't just about finding out the gender of the baby, although that's certainly the part many pregnant women look forward to. An ultrasound screens for birth defects and amniotic fluid, since abnormal readings on both can sometimes cause serious problems.
  • Urine monitoring — Women become very skilled at peeing in a cup by the end of a pregnancy. These screens monitor urine for infections, as well as indicators for serious conditions like preeclampsia and gestational diabetes.
  • Physical exams — A doctor will regularly measure the growth of the baby throughout a pregnancy. Towards the end of a pregnancy, the doctor will also ensure the baby is positioned properly for delivery, as well as measure cervical effacement and dilation. These physical exams help ensure a woman is as prepared for delivery as possible.
  • Stress level checks — Doctors are also supposed to talk with their patients about their stress levels and any concerns they have about the pregnancy. This dialogue can open up discussions about anxiety and depression, both of which can pose challenges for the care of a young infant.

How often should women obtain prenatal care?

If a woman is healthy during her pregnancy, the National Institutes of Health recommend a prenatal check once monthly until her 28th week of pregnancy. In the period between weeks 28 to 36, a pregnant woman should visit her doctor every two weeks. From 36 weeks onward, the visits for a healthy woman should be scheduled weekly. Of course, if a woman has a high-risk pregnancy or the doctor is concerned about any aspect of the pregnancy, these visits will be scheduled more regularly.

It's extremely important for pregnant women to go to their physician appointments regularly. If a pregnant woman doesn't go to the doctor because she is uninsured, she should reach out to her local Medicaid office to determine if she qualifies for government assistance with her prenatal care. Even if a woman can't qualify for Medicaid, many clinics exist to help women obtain life-sustaining and life-saving prenatal care.

More about pregnancy and baby

Moderate drinking and Baby's neurodevelopment: Harmful, or not?
What you need to know about bleeding during pregnancy
Is it OK to fast while pregnant?

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