The 13 Biggest Maternal Health Issues In The U.S., & What We Can Do To Fix Them

Ad failed to load

Did you know that a woman giving birth in America is more than twice as likely to die as a woman in Saudi Arabia or China? Or that she's three times as likely to die as a woman in the United Kingdom? Me neither. It may sound shocking in this day and age, but maternal mortality in the U.S. is on the rise. And that's just one of the many maternal health issues women in the U.S. still face.

From lack of prenatal care to attitudes toward birth control, there are huge problems in the way the U.S. as a society approaches pregnancy, childbirth, and the postpartum period. The issues implicate policymakers, the healthcare system and public health, corporate America, and cultural norms each individual can choose to perpetuate or stand up against.

But it's not enough to acknowledge the problems and their magnitude (though awareness is important). What are the potential solutions, and how can individuals and organizations help make them a reality? From donating to volunteering to lobbying lawmakers for policy changes to different approaches to medical care, there are multiple steps women, healthcare providers, and politicians can take that would mean better outcomes for women and children.

Ad failed to load

Here are some of the biggest issues impacting maternal and fetal health in the U.S.:

High Maternal Mortality Rates

Ad failed to load

According to a recent World Health Organization study, for every 100,000 births in the U.S. last year, about 18.5 women died, due in large part to medical complications that arose during or after pregnancy—things like congenital heart disease, diabetes, obesity and kidney problems. Meanwhile, maternal mortality rates in other developed countries like Canada, France and Japan are on the decline.

What can be done: Researchers believe that the uptick in the U.S. maternal mortality rate is due mainly to three factors: a decline in overall health, including increased rates of obesity and cardiovascular disease, inadequate prenatal care, and inadequate postpartum care. To address deaths during and following childbirth, we first need to address those issues.

Ad failed to load

Lack Of Prenatal Care

Every year, nearly one million American women deliver babies without receiving adequate medical attention during pregnancy, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Ad failed to load

I'll give you a minute to let that sink in. Because it's harsh statistic when you consider that women who do not receive prenatal care are three to four times more likely to die in childbirth than women who do, according to Every Mother Counts, Christy Turlington Burns' nonprofit dedicated to increasing pregnancy and childbirth safety. Why? Because regular prenatal care can help reduce the risk of complications like high blood pressure and diabetes that can lead to life-threatening conditions such as preeclampsia.

What can be done: Elise Turner, a nurse midwife with over 35 years of experience, told CNN that giving women more access to quality care is one way to bring the maternal mortality rate down. "We need to have quick, easy, 24/7 access to a skilled person that's not burdensome, that's not expensive, that's not difficult, that you don't have to drive an hour and a half to get to," she said.

That's not too much to ask, is it?

Ad failed to load

No Federally Mandated Family Leave

Ad failed to load

The U.S. is the only developed country without federally mandated paid family leave. Yup. And while some companies choose to offer it anyway, in the private sector only 12 percent of U.S. workers get paid family according to the department of labor.

How does that affect mothers and babies? It means that in addition to the stress that accompanies adding a new human to your life, women who are about to give birth have to decide whether to go weeks or months without pay in order to care for their children or go back to work almost immediately in order to keep supporting their families. And for lower income women or single mothers, there's often not even a choice. Also, paid family leave is linked to lower infant mortality rates and lower rates of postpartum depression. Additionally, when California became the first state to implement paid family leave, breastfeeding rates through three, six, and nine months rose 10 to 20 percent. So essentially the lack of paid leave is making it much more difficult for mothers to breastfeed. It's also depriving mothers and fathers of precious bonding time with their children.

What can be done: Through grants from the Department of Labor, three states plus Washington D.C. have been testing paid leave programs for several years. Early data shows that families are benefitting, and the programs aren't further stressing those states' economies. Let lawmakers know that you are aware of those programs and their outcome. Contact your representatives to tell them that you support paid family leave, and know how to argue for paid family leave when you come across someone who thinks it's unnecessary or potentially harmful.

Ad failed to load

Inadequate Post Partum Care

Ad failed to load

Most health plans in the United States only cover a single visit to a health care provider around six weeks after birth unless the woman has a recognized complication. It's kind of crazy when you consider that in many countries in Europe, multiple home visits following birth are standard for all women.

In the U.S., however, the focus tends to be almost entirely on the baby. That's despite the fact that, according to the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals, increasing quality postpartum care in the United States would help reduce maternal deaths by preventing complications like infection, deep vein thrombosis, and postpartum hemorrhage that can develop after women have returned home.

What can be done: "Look at all the apps that are out there, the reading materials, even perhaps your own behavior when you go see a new mom and baby — it is all about the baby,” said Dr. Priya Agrawal, obstetrician and director of Merck for Mothers, in an interview with Bustle. “That focus on the baby is actually very dangerous. More attention needs to be paid to the health of the mother, including by the new mom herself.”

Ad failed to load

One thing you can do the next time visit a woman who just had a baby is try to remember to keep the focus on her. And when you're the one having the baby and feel your caregivers and loved ones paying more attention to your infant than you, let them know you need their support a lot more than the baby does at this point.

Lack Of Health Insurance

Ad failed to load

American women who lack health insurance are four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than women who have insurance.

Wait, what?

Unfortunately, good maternity care in the U.S. doesn't come cheap. “America's health care system is the most complicated and expensive in the world,” Christy Turlington Burns told CNN in December. Turlington turned her own experience with childbirth complications into a maternal mission. “Mothers who can afford health insurance almost always have it provided by their employer or through a policy they buy for themselves,” she said. “For those without medical insurance (which includes 13 percent of all pregnant women), the costs for health care are so high that many can't afford it.”

Ad failed to load

What's being done: Burns started Every Mother Counts in 2010 with the singular goal to make childbirth safe for “every mother, everywhere.” Her initiatives include Commonsense Childbirth in Florida, which provides pre-natal care and education for low-income and at-risk mothers, and Ancient Song Doula Services in New York, which provides doula care, nutrition classes and group support to low income, at-risk women of color.

You can support the initiative here.

Ad failed to load

Extended Childbearing Years


It's a catch-22: Women finally have options for birthing children later in life, but the older you are, the higher your risk of developing certain complications during pregnancy like placental abruption and placenta prevue, according to Bustle. And research shows that while less than 15 percent of all births in the United States are to women 35 years and older, somewhere between 27 and 29 percent of all the pregnancy-related deaths are among that age group, according to the CDC.

Ad failed to load

"Because women are delaying childbearing, a larger proportion of them are likely entering pregnancy with a burden of chronic disease conditions," CDC researcher Andreea Creanga told CNN. "Many studies have shown that an increasing number of pregnant women in the United States have chronic health conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, chronic heart disease and all these conditions can put a pregnant woman at higher risk of pregnancy complications."

What can be done: Treat these pregnancies as high risk from the get-go so that women and their doctors can manage any complications early on and achieve healthy outcomes.

Ad failed to load

No Standard Protocol For Childbirth Emergencies


Did you know that there's no standard treatment in place for emergencies that take place during childbirth at most hospitals?

Ad failed to load

“That lack of a clear protocol seems to have hospitals fumbling,” Agrawal told Bustle, adding that about 40 percent of pregnancy-related deaths are potentially preventable. To that end, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists is currently working with Merck for Mothers and more than 10,000 healthcare providers and 120 birthing facilities to develop and implement standard approaches for handling three of the most common childbirth emergencies: hemorrhage, blood clots, and severe hypertension.

What can be done: Standard protocols need to be implemented, she said, to ensure every woman will receive the best-practice intervention in the case of an emergency, no matter where she gives birth.

To get involved, click here.

Ad failed to load

Excessive Medical Interventions

Ad failed to load

While in many countries women lack access to life-saving medical interventions when something goes wrong during pregnancy, here in the U.S., women and infants are often exposed to more procedures than are medically necessary. And these procedures sometimes carry unwarranted risks. Overuse of labor induction and of C-sections, for example, can lead to higher incidences of postpartum infection and higher rates of hysterectomies, according to the association of reproductive health professionals.

What can be done: In countries like the U.K. and the Netherlands, where there are less medical interventions performed, there are also fewer maternal deaths. Which probably means a reduction in the overuse of medical interventions in the U.S. is the way to go.

Ad failed to load

Lack Of Mental Health Screenings


Despite the increased awareness of postpartum depression—which affects one in seven women—some doctors don't screen for it, and those who do often lack the right resources to ensure their patients receive help, so many of these cases still go untreated.

Ad failed to load

What can be done: In November it was announced that New York City has set a goal to screen and treat all pregnant women and new mothers for maternal depression. “Addressing maternal depression is one of the most important things we can do for New York City families,” said Deputy Mayor for Strategic Policy Initiatives Richard Buery. “Too many mothers fail to seek treatment for fear of being labeled a ‘bad mother,’ because they don't recognize the signs or because they just won't take the time to take care of themselves. By connecting mothers to the support they need, we not only help mothers but we promote the development of healthy children. Nothing could be more important."

Then let's make that universal.

Ad failed to load

Cardiovascular Disease


Cardiovascular disease is the number one cause of maternal death,” Dan Frayne, M.D., assistant residency program director at North Carolina's Mountain Area Health Education Center, told UNC-Asheville paper The Blue Banner. Risk factors include hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol, tobacco abuse and a stressful lifestyle.

Ad failed to load

What can be done: A little preparation can go a long way, and pre-conception visits to the doctor to check your blood sugars, decrease your stress, start an exercise regimen for weight loss and change your diet should help. “Most of these risks can be improved with pre-pregnancy health care,” Frayne said. “By the time you know you’re pregnant, the horse is already out of the barn.”

Rising Obesity

Ad failed to load

The increasing rate of maternal obesity provides a major challenge, as risks during pregnancy include gestational diabetes and preeclampsia, making it is important for physicians to address this issue with their patients prior to becoming pregnant. “Obesity is one of the leading causes of mortality in the OB/GYN field," Dr. Michael Brodman, chairman of the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Science at Mount Sinai, told CNN.

What can be done: The answer, says Brodman, lies in part in developing specific protocols for pregnant patients with obesity. "We didn't specifically have protocols for dealing with obese patients," he said. “We didn't treat them differently and in reality, you have to treat them differently."

Ad failed to load

Unwanted Pregnancies


“Fifty-one percent of pregnancies in the United States are unintended,” Frayne told The Blue Banner. “How much time do we spend planning for marriage, or getting into college or choosing a career?” Unwanted pregnancies, he added, greatly increase the risk of depression. “If you have an unwanted pregnancy, the chance that you’re going to have depression is multiple times higher than the general population.”

Ad failed to load

What can be done: Despite ample evidence that it does not delay sexual activity or lower teen pregnancy rates, abstinence-only education gets huge amounts of federal funding each year, whereas there is no federal funding for comprehensive sex education. Access to high-quality family planning information and services—otherwise known as contraceptive practice—however, has been shown to significantly lower maternal mortality and reduce the likelihood of another unintended pregnancy and abortion, according to the National Institute of Health. That in turn means fewer women suffering from depression during unintended pregnancies. Seems like a no-brainer, right?

Not Valuing Women Enough

Ad failed to load

Finally, Agrawal told Bustle that she thinks the real reason so many women are still suffering and often dying of maternity-related causes in America is that we just don't prioritize women's needs enough as a culture.

What can be done: “Investment in maternal health also requires us to recognize and value women," she said. "As one of the maternal health visionaries Mahmoud Fathalla said, 'Women are not dying of diseases we cannot treat ... They are dying because societies have yet to make the decision that their lives are worth saving.'"


Ad failed to load

This post is sponsored by Walgreens. Walgreens is partnering with Vitamin Angels to help provide vitamins for undernourished children around the world.

Sources: CNN (1, 2, 3, 4), World Health Organization, Health Resources and Services Administration, Every Mother Counts, U.S. Department of Labor, Science Direct, International Business Times, Bustle (1, 2), The Blue Banner, Merck for Mothers, Journal of Women's Health, Office of the Mayor of New York City, Reviews in Obstetrics & Gynecology, Advocates for Youth, Epidemiology Reviews

Images: Daniel Lobo/Flickr; Giphy (13)

Ad failed to load
Must Reads

10 Reasons Why I Won't Apologize For Giving My Toddler A Pacifier

My first child had no interest in a pacifier. I tried a couple times to get him to take one, but he always spat them out and gave me an incredulous, judgmental look. But my second? It was love at first suckle. And after a while, the incredulous, judg…
By Jamie Kenney

Being A Dog Parent Prepared Me For Having A Baby, Really

I’ve always wanted kids; I was never as sure about raising a puppy. Then I spent six months living with someone who brought home an eight-week-old golden retriever puppy, and I see no way to make it out of that experience claiming not to love dogs. I…
By Heather Caplan

20 Of The Most Popular Unisex Names Of All Time, That You'll Be Hearing More Of For Sure

You might think of unisex names as a fairly recent trend, but the truth is these versatile monikers have been commonly used throughout history (well, some more commonly than others). That's why the team over at recently compiled a list of t…
By Jacqueline Burt Cote

How To Have A Date Night With No Babysitter, Because It's Easier Than You Think

After having children, many couples feel that their love lives immediately go out the window, but it's so important to make your romantic life a priority so both you and your partner can be the best versions of yourselves you can be. As we all know, …
By Abi Berwager Schreier

9 Ways Baby No. 3 Made My Family Feel Complete

My husband and I decided to have another baby right after we got married and, well, we had no idea what we were getting into. I got pregnant right away, endured a high-risk pregnancy, and, before I knew it, my third baby had arrived. Together, we emb…
By Steph Montgomery

8 Stereotypes About New Dads That Are *Totally* True

Much like new mothers, new fathers have a lot on their plate. Parenting can be scary and complex, especially at first and regardless of your gender. People want to do right by their kids, after all. And since all new parents are a hot mess, dads are …
By Priscilla Blossom

8 Differences Between Being Pregnant In Your 20s Vs 30s, According To Science

Whether you're planning a pregnancy, or just thinking about your future family, it's typical to think about things like child-spacing, how many kids you want, and when to start trying to conceive. When making your pro/con list, you might also conside…
By Steph Montgomery

16 Moms Share Remedies For Their Most Intense Chocolate Cravings During Pregnancy

For better or worse, pregnancy is usually synonymous with odd cravings. Sure, there are the stereotypical combos like pickles and ice cream that plague gestating women the world over, but there are other mind-boggling combinations, too, including but…
By Candace Ganger

Putting Sunscreen On Your Kid Doesn't Have To Be A Fight — Here's How To Do It

I am almost translucent, so me and sunscreen are basically besties at this point. Even though my children are beautifully deep brown thanks to my husband's genetics, I still slather them like biscuits being buttered because I refuse to take risks wit…
By Cat Bowen

7 Things A Mom Really Means When She Says She Doesn't Want Anything On Mother's Day

Every year my family asks me what I want for Mother's Day, and every single year I tell them the same thing: Nothing. So, by now, they know that when I say "nothing" I absolutely do not mean "nothing." In fact, there are more than a few things a mom …
By Candace Ganger

19 Moms Share The Way They Cured Their Pregnancy Comfort Food Cravings

I was obnoxiously sick during the first trimester with, "lucky" for me, both of my pregnancies. For the first three months I lived on saltines, lemonade, and fresh bread. Once I was able to eat, however, all I wanted was savory and sweet comfort food…
By Dina Leygerman

8 Fascinating Facts About Babies Born In May, The Luckiest Month Of All

The height of all things fresh and springy, May is an excellent month to have a baby. It's a time of growth, graduations, and outdoor celebrations. And these fascinating facts about May babies will give you more reasons than ever to appreciate childr…
By Lindsay E. Mack

I Used To Judge Formula-Feeding Moms — Until I Became One

The other patrons in the hip Brooklyn restaurant probably couldn’t care less what I was feeding my baby, but I’ll always remember the shame I felt as I quickly mixed up his bottle of formula in front of them. I admitted to my childless friend that I …
By Katherine Martinelli

7 White Lies It’s Necessary To Tell To Keep Your Relationship Healthy

Telling lots of lies typically isn't associated with a healthy, strong, lasting relationship, and that's still certainly true, but not all lies are exactly the same. Though you've probably heard from someone at least once or twice that the lie they t…
By Lauren Schumacker

The Skinny Jeans That Saved Me Postpartum

Accepting my post-pregnancy body is hands-down one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. It’s something that I still work on every single day. During my first pregnancy, I was 20 years old, so I managed to bounce back quickly. In fact, I dropp…
By Allison Cooper

7 Ways Your Baby Is Trying To Say They Feel Safe

In those first weeks of new motherhood, it can feel like you need an interpreter for your newborn. With their limited means of communication, figuring out what message your baby is trying to get across to you can be a challenge. With time, however, y…
By Kimmie Fink

Here's Why Dogs Are Obsessed With Babies' Poop, According To Science

Most family dogs seem to understand babies, and they're more than happy to make friends with the newest member of the pack. It's adorable... for the most part and until you go to change your little one's diaper. Suddenly, you're wondering why dogs ar…
By Lindsay E. Mack

6 Signs You're Meant To Have A Big Age Gap Between Kids

There's a five year age difference between my two children, to the day. Their age gap wasn't planned but, for a variety of reasons, works well for our family. And since I was so focused on having a second baby, I totally overlooked the signs that wou…
By Candace Ganger

Here's How To Introduce Your Pet To Your Baby & Make Everything As Calm As Possible

Our home, which we lovingly refer to as “the funny farm,” is filled with four-legged family members. We have two crazy beagles and two cat jerks, and boy are they loved and spoiled. (As they should be.) But we are now finally having a baby of our own…
By Abi Berwager Schreier

Here's The Right Birth Method For You, According To Your Zodiac Sign

If you're pregnant, you've probably given childbirth some serious thought. Some moms-to-be prepare a meticulous birth plan, while others are comfortable just going with the flow. And me? Well, I made a plan... but that plan was useless when faced wit…
By Steph Montgomery

My Dog Knew I Was Pregnant Before My Family Did

Growing up, I was 100 percent sure I'd be a mom one day. To a dog, that is. My baby plans came later. And once my husband and I were sure we wanted both a dog and a baby, we'd add to our joint dog-and-baby name list over Sunday brunch or on date nigh…
By Melissa Mills