For the majority of new mamas, there is a big gap in care between the time of discharge from the birthing center and the six-week postpartum visit. But, as many of us know, those are tough, taxing weeks when our bodies are trying to recover while we also adjust to life with a newborn.

Now, a study published in the journal Circulation: Heart Failure shows that during this gap of postpartum care, the rate of heart failure among new mothers is unacceptably high—which has contributed to the rising maternal mortality rate in the United States.

Using data from more than 50 million pregnancies in the United States between 2001 and 2011, researchers found that heart failure diagnoses rose by 7.1% among postpartum hospitalizations for each year analyzed. The rates of heart failure also increased by nearly 5% annually for pregnant women.

Previous research shows cardiovascular disease or cardiomyopathy is responsible for roughly 26% of pregnancy-related deaths. So the researchers clearly aren’t overstating it when they say “heart failure is a significant clinical problem” among reproductive-age women, especially those with other risk factors, such as obesity or hypertension.

One way to address the rates of heart failure among new mothers? Noting those risk factors and creating a prevention plan.

“This finding lends support to using delivery-related hospitalization as a window of opportunity to identify high-risk women and develop surveillance strategies before discharge,” says the study’s lead author, Mulubrhan Mogos, assistant professor of nursing at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Although only 2% of pregnancy-related hospitalizations occur during the first weeks postpartum, this is when women are most at risk for heart failure—with 60% of pregnancy-related heart failure episodes taking place in the six weeks after a woman gives birth.

The researchers say that for mothers with high risk factors for heart failure, a care plan that sees them closely monitored “ideally from a multidisciplinary team that includes heart failure specialists” is linked to lower rates of hospitalizations.

“Health education about expectations and their risk status during delivery-related hospitalization may empower women to seek immediate support from their social network and healthcare provider,” Mogos says.

Mogos adds, “There is a need for increased awareness and public health measures,” especially among groups that are shown to be more at risk for heart failure, such as women in low-income areas or those who engage in risky behaviors.

The sooner postpartum women can get proactive care, the better the outcomes—for them, their children and communities as a whole.

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