Dear Dr. Levister: I am pregnant with my first child. My doctor says I should get prenatal care. Why is this so important? P.W.
Dear P.W.: The objective of prenatal care is to monitor and improve the health of the pregnant mother and her baby. Getting early and regular prenatal care is crucial because it allows the health care provider the chance to find problems early so they can be treated as soon as possible.
Although there were substantial declines on this measure in the 1990s for all races, black, Hispanic, and Native American mothers are more than twice as likely as white mothers to receive either late or no prenatal care.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly one-third of American women who give birth every year will have some kind of pregnancy-related complication. Those who do not get adequate prenatal care, run the risk that such complications will go undetected or will not be identified soon enough. This can lead to potentially serious consequences for both the mother and her baby.
During prenatal visits, the health care provider teaches the woman about pregnancy, monitors any medical conditions she may have, tests for health problems with the mother and baby, and refers the woman to needed services such as a support group, childbirth class, or the WIC program.
The percentage of women who reported that their first prenatal care visit occurred during the first trimester has remained relatively stable from a low of 74.8 percent in 1997 to a high of 80.8 percent in 2001. This is still below the Healthy People 2010 target of 90 percent of women beginning prenatal care during the first trimester.
Prenatal care does not always address, and may not be as effective among, women with specific social and medical risks. Adequacy of care (defined by the frequency and timing of visits), however, has been correlated with positive outcomes and may also confer benefits such as reduced likelihood of post-partum depression and infant injuries.