Prenatal care refers to all of the care that a pregnant teen or woman receives from a health care provider while she is pregnant to keep both her and her baby as healthy as possible and to recognize any problems at the earliest possible stage. Prenatal care is ongoing and works best when the regularly scheduled appointments are kept. In fact, research has shown that babies of women who have received prenatal care are less likely to have a low birth weight or even die, than if the mother did not receive prenatal care.
Prenatal care may be provided by different health care workers. These include an obstetrician, who is a medical doctor; a midwife; or a nurse practitioner with a specialty in obstetrics.
A typical prenatal care plan will involve a monthly appointment during the first six months of pregnancy, biweekly appointments in the seventh and eighth months, and weekly appointments in the ninth month.
Overall, prenatal care includes advice about a range of topics including expected weight gain, food and nutritional supplements, sexual activity during pregnancy, hydration, and physical activity during pregnancy. Also included is guidance for handling any medical conditions or illnesses that the pregnant woman may have with treatments that are least likely to harm the baby. Along this line, a first time mother will also receive advice about things to avoid, which include but are not limited to:
- alcohol and teen pregnancy
- over the counter and prescription medicines unless prescribed by the health care provider overseeing the pregnancy, as well as the use of any illegal substances
- insufficient rest
- unbalanced diet
The health care provider may recommend particular vitamins, with particular attention to folic acid. If a woman is planning to become pregnant, beginning to take folic acid three months prior to becoming pregnant is currently recommended. Also, when a planned pregnancy is being considered, making sure that the mother has received all necessary immunizations, particularly those like rubella and chicken pox that are known to harm unborn babies.
Another aspect of prenatal care is assisting pregnant women to know what to expect for the duration of their pregnancy as well as the process of giving birth. Topics of discussion are likely to include:
- the calculated due date and how long before or after the woman might give birth
- tests that may be performed during pregnancy: what they are and what their purpose is
- Braxton Hicks contractions, also called “false labor”
- signs of labor, such as lightening, effacement and dilation of the cervix, nausea, breaking of the waters, etc.
- the stages of labor and how it progresses
- choices that can be made about the baby’s delivery (hospital, special birthing rooms, various birthing practices, etc.)
- the expected length of the hospital stay
- recommendations of childbirth classes
- under what circumstances a cesarean section might be necessary and the basics of what that would entail
- the role of the labor coach
Particularly for first time mothers, some discussion of care of a newborn may also be discussed.