Recommendations and Conclusions
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists makes the following recommendations and conclusions:
- To optimize the health of women and infants, postpartum care should become an ongoing process, rather than a single encounter, with services and support tailored to each woman’s individual needs.
- Anticipatory guidance should begin during pregnancy with development of a postpartum care plan that addresses the transition to parenthood and well-woman care.
- Prenatal discussions should include the woman’s reproductive life plans, including desire for and timing of any future pregnancies. A woman’s future pregnancy intentions provide a context for shared decision-making regarding contraceptive options.
- All women should ideally have contact with a maternal care provider within the first 3 weeks postpartum. This initial assessment should be followed up with ongoing care as needed, concluding with a comprehensive postpartum visit no later than 12 weeks after birth.
- The timing of the comprehensive postpartum visit should be individualized and woman centered.
- The comprehensive postpartum visit should include a full assessment of physical, social, and psychological well-being.
- Women with pregnancies complicated by preterm birth, gestational diabetes, or hypertensive disorders of pregnancy should be counseled that these disorders are associated with a higher lifetime risk of maternal cardiometabolic disease.
- Women with chronic medical conditions, such as hypertensive disorders, obesity, diabetes, thyroid disorders, renal disease, mood disorders, and substance use disorders, should be counseled regarding the importance of timely follow-up with their obstetrician–gynecologists or primary care providers for ongoing coordination of care.
- For a woman who has experienced a miscarriage, stillbirth, or neonatal death, it is essential to ensure follow-up with an obstetrician–gynecologist or other obstetric care provider.
- Optimizing care and support for postpartum families will require policy changes. Changes in the scope of postpartum care should be facilitated by reimbursement policies that support postpartum care as an ongoing process, rather than an isolated visit.
The weeks following birth are a critical period for a woman and her infant, setting the stage for long-term health and well-being. During this period, a woman is adapting to multiple physical, social, and psychological changes. She is recovering from childbirth, adjusting to changing hormones, and learning to feed and care for her newborn (1). In addition to being a time of joy and excitement, this “fourth trimester” can present considerable challenges for women, including lack of sleep, fatigue, pain, breastfeeding difficulties, stress, new onset or exacerbation of mental health disorders, lack of sexual desire, and urinary incontinence (2–4). Women also may need to navigate preexisting health and social issues, such as substance dependence, intimate partner violence, and other concerns. During this time, postpartum care often is fragmented among maternal and pediatric health care providers, and communication across the transition from inpatient to outpatient settings is often inconsistent (5). Home visits are provided in some settings; however, currently, most women in the United States must independently navigate the postpartum transition until the traditional postpartum visit (4–6 weeks after delivery). This lack of attention to maternal health needs is of particular concern given that more than one half of pregnancy-related deaths occur after the birth of the infant (6). Given the urgent need to reduce severe maternal morbidity and mortality, this Committee Opinion has been revised to reinforce the importance of the “fourth trimester” and to propose a new paradigm for postpartum care.
Redefining Postpartum Care
Following birth, many cultures prescribe a 30–40-day period of rest and recovery, with the woman and her newborn surrounded and supported by family and community members (7). Many agrarian cultures enshrine postpartum rituals, including traditional foods and support for day-to-day household tasks. These traditions have been sustained by some cultural groups, but for many women in the United States, the 6-week postpartum visit punctuates a period devoid of formal or informal maternal support. Obstetrician–gynecologists and other women’s health care providers are uniquely qualified to enable each woman to access the clinical and social resources she needs to successfully navigate the transition from pregnancy to parenthood.
To optimize the health of women and infants, postpartum care should become an ongoing process, rather than a single encounter, with services and support tailored to each woman’s individual needs. Indeed, in qualitative studies, women have noted that there is an intense focus on women’s health prenatally but care during the postpartum period is infrequent and late (8). Rather than an arbitrary “6-week check,” the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends that the timing of the comprehensive postpartum visit be individualized and woman centered. To better meet the needs of women in the postpartum period, care would ideally include an initial assessment, either in person or by phone, within the first 3 weeks postpartum to address acute postpartum issues. This initial assessment should be followed up with ongoing care as needed, concluding with a comprehensive well-woman visit no later than 12 weeks after birth (Fig. 1). Insurance coverage policies should be aligned to support this tailored approach to “fourth trimester” care (see Policy and Postpartum Care).
Currently, as many as 40% of women do not attend a postpartum visit. Underutilization of postpartum care impedes management of chronic health conditions and access to effective contraception, which increases the risk of short interval pregnancy and preterm birth. Attendance rates are lower among populations with limited resources (9, 10), which contributes to health disparities.
Increasing attendance at postpartum visits is a developmental goal for Healthy People 2020. Strategies for increasing attendance include but are not limited to the following measures: discussing the importance of postpartum care during prenatal visits; using peer counselors, intrapartum support staff, postpartum nurses, and discharge planners to encourage postpartum follow-up; scheduling postpartum visits during prenatal care or before hospital discharge; using technology (eg, email, text, and apps) to remind women to schedule postpartum follow-up (11); and increasing access to paid sick days and paid family leave.
Optimal postpartum care provides an opportunity to promote the overall health and well-being of women, and evidence suggests that current care falls short of that goal. In a national survey, less than one half of women attending a postpartum visit reported that they received enough information at the visit about postpartum depression, birth spacing, healthy eating, the importance of exercise, or changes in their sexual response and emotions (12). Of note, anticipatory guidance improves maternal well-being: In a randomized controlled trial, 15 minutes of anticipatory guidance before hospital discharge, followed by a phone call at 2 weeks, reduced symptoms of depression and increased breastfeeding duration through 6 months postpartum among African American and Hispanic women (13, 14).
To optimize postpartum care, anticipatory guidance should begin during pregnancy with development of a postpartum care plan that addresses the transition to parenthood and well-woman care (15) (Table 1). Anticipa-tory guidance should include discussion of infant feeding (16, 17), “baby blues,” postpartum emotional health, and the challenges of parenting and postpartum recovery from birth (18). Prenatal discussions also should address plans for long-term management of chronic health conditions, such as mental health, diabetes, hypertension, and obesity, including identification of a primary health care provider who will care for the patient beyond the postpartum period. Within this guidance, health care providers should discuss the purpose and value of postpartum clinical care as well as the types of services and support available.
Reproductive Life Planning
Beginning in prenatal care, the patient and her obstetrician–gynecologist or other obstetric care provider should discuss the woman’s reproductive life plans, including desire for and timing of any future pregnancies (19). Women should be advised to avoid interpregnancy intervals shorter than 6 months and should be counseled about the risks and benefits of repeat pregnancy sooner than 18 months (20). Short interpregnancy intervals also are associated with reduced vaginal birth after cesarean success for women undergoing trial of labor after cesarean (21).
A woman’s future pregnancy intentions provide a context for shared decision-making regarding contraceptive options (22). Shared decision-making brings two experts to the table: the patient and the health care provider. The health care provider is an expert in the clinical evidence, and the patient is an expert in her experiences and values (23). As affirmed by the World Health Organization, when making choices regarding the timing of the next pregnancy, “Individuals and couples should consider health risks and benefits along with other circumstances such as their age, fecundity, fertility aspirations, access to health services, child-rearing support, social and economic circumstances, and personal preferences” (24). Given the complex history of sterilization abuse (25) and fertility control among marginalized women, care should be taken to ensure that every woman is provided information on the full range of contraceptive options so that she can select the method best suited to her needs (26).
The Postpartum Care Plan
Beginning during prenatal care, the woman and her obstetrician–gynecologist or other obstetric care provider should develop a postpartum care plan and care team, inclusive of family and friends who will provide social and material support in the months following birth, as well as the medical provider(s), who will be primarily responsible for care of the woman and her infant after birth (19). Suggested components of the postpartum care team and care plan are listed in Table 1 and Table 2. The care plan should identify the primary care provider and other medical providers (eg, psychiatrist) who will assume care of chronic medical issues after the postpartum period. If the obstetrician–gynecologist serves as the primary care provider, then transition to another primary care physician is unnecessary.
Transition From Intrapartum to Postpartum Care
The postpartum care plan should be reviewed and updated after the woman gives birth. Women often are uncertain about whom to contact for postpartum concerns (27). In a recent U.S. survey, one in four postpartum women did not have a phone number for a health care provider to contact for any concerns about themselves or their infants (12). Therefore, it is suggested that the care plan include contact information and written instructions regarding the timing of follow-up postpartum care. Just as a health care provider or health care practice leads the woman’s care during pregnancy, a primary obstetrician–gynecologist or other health care provider should assume responsibility for her postpartum care (15). This individual or practice is the primary point of contact for the woman, for other members of the postpartum care team, and for any maternal health concerns noted by the infant’s health care provider. When the woman is discharged from inpatient care but prolonged infant hospitalization remote from the woman’s home is anticipated, a local obstetrician–gynecologist or other health care provider should be identified as a point of contact and an appropriate hand off should occur. Such a referral should occur even if delivery did not take place at a local hospital.
Substantial morbidity occurs in the early postpartum period; more than one half of pregnancy-related maternal deaths occur after the birth of the infant (6). Blood pressure evaluation is recommended for women with hypertensive disorders of pregnancy no later than 7–10 days postpartum (28), and women with severe hypertension should be seen within 72 hours; other experts have recommended follow-up at 3–5 days (29). Such assessment is critical given that more than one half of postpartum strokes occur within 10 days of discharge (30). In-person follow-up also may be beneficial for women at high risk of complications, such as postpartum depression (31), cesarean or perineal wound infection, lactation difficulties, or chronic conditions such as seizure disorders that require postpartum medication titration. For women with complex medical problems, multiple visits may be required to facilitate recovery from birth.
Of note, even among women without risk factors, problems such as heavy bleeding, pain, physical exhaustion, and urinary incontinence are common (12). World Health Organization guidelines for postnatal care include routine postpartum evaluation of all women and infant dyads at 3 days, 1–2 weeks, and 6 weeks (32). The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence guidelines recommend screening all women for resolution of the “Baby Blues” at 10–14 days after birth to facilitate early identification of and treatment for postpartum depression (15). Contact in the first few weeks also may enable women to meet their breastfeeding goals: Among women with early, undesired weaning, 20% had discontinued breastfeeding by 6 weeks postpartum (33), when traditionally timed visits occurred. To address these common postpartum concerns, all women should ideally have contact with a maternal care provider within the first 3 weeks postpartum.
Assessment need not occur as an office visit, and the usefulness of an in-person assessment should be weighed against the burden of traveling to and attending an office visit with a neonate. Additional mechanisms for assessing women’s health needs after birth include home visits (34), phone support (35, 36), text messages (37), remote blood pressure monitoring (38, 39), and app-based support (40). Phone support during the postpartum period appears to reduce depression scores, improve breastfeeding outcomes, and increase patient satisfaction, although the evidence is mixed (35, 36).
The Comprehensive Postpartum Visit and Transition to Well-Woman Care
The comprehensive postpartum visit has typically been scheduled between 4 weeks and 6 weeks after delivery, a time frame that likely reflects cultural traditions of 40 days of convalescence for women and their infants (41). Today, however, 23% of employed women return to work within 10 days postpartum and an additional 22% return to work between 10 days and 40 days (42). Therefore, timing of the comprehensive postpartum visit should be individualized and woman centered, occurring no later than 12 weeks from birth. Timing also should take into account any changes in insurance coverage anticipated after delivery. At all postpartum encounters, obstetrician–gynecologists and other obstetric care providers should consider the need for future follow-up and time additional visits accordingly. However timed, the comprehensive postpartum visit is a medical appointment; it is not an “all-clear” signal. Obstetrician–gynecologists and other obstetric care providers should ensure that women, their families, and their employers understand that completion of the comprehensive postpartum visit does not obviate the need for continued recovery and support through 6 weeks postpartum and beyond.
The comprehensive postpartum visit should include a full assessment of physical, social, and psychological well-being, including the following domains (Box 1): mood and emotional well-being; infant care and feeding; sexuality, contraception, and birth spacing; sleep and fatigue; physical recovery from birth; chronic disease management; and health maintenance.
The comprehensive postpartum visit provides an opportunity for a woman to ask questions about her labor, childbirth, and any complications (15). Relevant details should be reviewed and documented in the medical record. A traumatic birth experience can cause postpartum posttraumatic stress disorder, which affects 3–16% of women (43). Trauma is in the eye of the beholder, and health care providers should be aware that a woman may experience a birth as traumatic even if she and her infant are healthy. Complications should be discussed with respect to risks for future pregnancies, such as recommendations for 17α-hydroxyprogesterone caproate to reduce risk of recurrent preterm birth, or aspirin to reduce risk of preeclampsia. Any placental pathology reports should be reviewed and shared with the patient. Recommendations should be made to optimize maternal health during the interpregnancy period (44), such as controlling diabetes and attaining optimal weight (45).
Adverse Pregnancy Outcomes and Cardiovascular Risk
There are risk factors for cardiovascular disease that appear during pregnancy, and these risk factors are emerging as an important predictor of future arteriosclerotic cardiovascular disease (ASCVD) risk. Complications such as preterm delivery, gestational diabetes, gestational hypertension, preeclampsia, and eclampsia are associated with greater risk of ASCVD (46). Pregnancy is, therefore, a natural “stress test” identifying at-risk women, but because these conditions often resolve postpartum, the increased cardiovascular disease risk is not consistently communicated to women. These adverse pregnancy outcomes are also not assessed when using current ASCVD risk assessment tools. Therefore, women with pregnancies complicated by preterm birth, gestational diabetes, or hypertensive disorders of pregnancy should be counseled that these disorders are associated with a higher lifetime risk of maternal cardiometabolic disease. These women should undergo ASCVD risk assessment (47, 48), with particular attention to the effect of social determinants of health on cardiometabolic disease (49). All postpartum women with gestational diabetes should undergo glucose screening with a fasting plasma glucose test or a 75-g, 2-hour oral glucose tolerance test (45). Any history of pregnancy complications should be documented in the woman’s electronic medical record to facilitate effective transition of care and to inform future screening and treatment.
Chronic Health Conditions
Women with chronic medical conditions, such as hypertensive disorders, obesity, diabetes, thyroid disorders, renal disease, mood disorders, and substance use disorders, should be counseled regarding the importance of timely follow-up with their obstetrician–gynecologists or primary care providers for ongoing coordination of care. Medications such as antiepileptics and psychotropic agents should be reviewed to ensure that the dosage has been adjusted to reflect postpartum physiology and that the agents selected are compatible for women who are breastfeeding. The U.S. National Library of Medicine’s LactMed is a free online resource that provides high-quality guidance on medication safety during lactation (www.toxnet.nlm.nih.gov/newtoxnet/lactmed.htm).
For a woman who has experienced a miscarriage, stillbirth, or neonatal death, it is essential to ensure follow-up with an obstetrician–gynecologist or other obstetric care provider. Key elements of this visit include emotional support and bereavement counseling; referral, if appropriate, to counselors and support groups; review of any laboratory and pathology studies related to the loss; and counseling regarding recurrent risk and future pregnancy planning (50).
Transition to Ongoing Well-Woman Care
During the postpartum period, the woman and her obstetrician–gynecologist or other obstetric care provider should modify her postpartum care plan to identify the health care provider who will assume primary responsibility for her ongoing care in her primary medical home. Appropriate referrals to other members of her health care team should also be made during this transitional period. If the obstetrician–gynecologist or other obstetric care provider is also her primary care provider, no transfer of responsibility is necessary. If responsibility is transferred to another primary care provider, the obstetrician–gynecologist or other obstetric care provider is responsible for ensuring that there is communication with the primary care provider so that he or she can understand the implications of any pregnancy complications for the woman’s future health and maintain continuity of care.
Written recommendations for follow-up for well-woman care and for any ongoing medical issues should be documented in the medical record, provided to the patient, and communicated to appropriate members of the postpartum care team, including her primary care medical home provider. By providing comprehensive, woman-centered care after childbirth, obstetrician–gynecologists and other obstetric care providers can enable every woman to optimize her long-term health and well-being.
Policy and Postpartum Care
Optimizing care and support for postpartum families will require policy changes. Changes in the scope of postpartum care should be facilitated by reimbursement policies that support postpartum care as an ongoing process, rather than an isolated visit. More broadly, provisions for paid parental leave are essential to improve the health of women and children and reduce disparities. As one study (51) has noted, “The lack of policies substantially benefitting early life in the United States constitutes a grave social injustice: those who are already most disadvantaged in our society bear the greatest burden.” The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists endorses paid parental leave as essential, including maintenance of full benefits and 100% of pay for at least 6 weeks (52). Obstetrician–gynecologists and other obstetric care providers should be in the forefront of policy efforts to enable all women to recover from birth and nurture their infants.
For More Information
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has identified additional resources on topics related to this document that may be helpful for ob–gyns, other health care providers, and patients. You may view these resources at www.acog.org/More-Info/OptimizingPostpartumCare.
These resources are for information only and are not meant to be comprehensive. Referral to these resources does not imply the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists’ endorsement of the organization, the organization’s website, or the content of the resource. The resources may change without notice.
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