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Maternal health is the health of women during their pregnancies, deliveries, and post partum periods. Worldwide, it is a significant health concern, as many women give birth at least once during their lifetimes, and in developing nations, labor and delivery can be among the leading causes of death due to limited access to health care. International organizations concerned with health use a variety of methods for combating maternal mortality rates, including providing education, increasing the number of health care providers, and improving sanitation.
In pregnancy, maternal health includes a number of concerns. One of the most important is keeping the mother healthy so the fetus experiences normal development. Pregnant women have unique dietary needs and must be careful about environmental exposures to toxins that might hurt their babies. In the case of women with preexisting disabilities or diseases, some care may need to be taken in pregnancy to protect their health while they carry the baby to term; women with mental illnesses who cannot take medications during pregnancy, for example, may need counseling and other support.
Labor and delivery can be extremely dangerous in poor conditions. In the developed world, laboring women and their babies die at very low rates because of access to advanced medical care. In developing countries, women may not have clean environments for birthing, could lack advanced health care for obstetric complications, and might not receive appropriate support through labor and delivery. Neonatal and maternal mortality rates drop dramatically with simple measures like making sure midwives will be available for every birth.
After giving birth, maternal health includes successful expulsion of the placenta and monitoring in the days following birth for signs of postpartum infection, hemorrhage, and other health issues. Women may be at risk of depression or could have trouble creating breast milk. They may also need education in caring for their babies, like nutrition education and outreach to help with infant development. Health educators may provide instruction for mothers to facilitate language skills, hand coordination, and other developmental milestones.
Maternal health also includes family planning topics. Women can receive education about planning the spacing and timing of their pregnancies, while considering issues like their health and goals. Pregnancy prevention may be important at some stages of a woman's life, and conversely, other women may need assistance with fertility when they are ready to start or add to their families. Practitioners in the field of maternal health include doctors in a variety of specialties, nurses, and midwives.
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