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Do you know the warning signs of post-birth complications?

post-birth complicationsThe United States lags behind the world in mother and child safety during delivery. Despite steep declines in the global rate of maternal mortality, it is one of the few countries reporting increases in pregnancy-related deaths, making it an outlier among developed nations.

Fortunately, the majority of women safely give birth without encountering major health problems, but any mother could suffer from a life-threatening complication where time and response matter. Pregnancy-related deaths and complications can occur during pregnancy, at delivery or up to one year after giving birth, but those occurring during the postpartum period following delivery are of particular concern.

Chronic Conditions Contribute to Risk of Complications

Women who suffer from chronic conditions, such as heart disease, obesity and high blood pressure, and those who have children later in life may be at greater risk of experiencing complications. Peer-reviewed publications confirm approximately half of pregnancy-related deaths are believed to be preventable.¹ In fact, as detailed by the World Health Organization, the statistical majority of mothers who die from pregnancy-related post-birth complications could and should have been successfully treated with recognition of the warning signs and immediate medical attention. Unfortunately, deficient system safeguards in some institutions and the lack of consistent and comprehensive education for mothers on post-birth warning signs often lead to a delay or failure to diagnose these life-threatening conditions.

“The conditions referenced are rare but known, and each carries the potential to take a new mother’s life. Institutions and providers need to have clear system safeguards to help with recognition and treatment in a timely manner,” says Elk & Elk Partner Jay Kelley.

According to Kelley, a recent push for simulations and the application of trauma protocols has demonstrated a meaningful improvement in outcome.

“In a way, it is combining medicine with common sense. We all know practice improves outcome, and a clear delineation of team members’ roles and protocols can provide efficient life-saving care,” he says of the efforts.

Kelley focuses his practice on matters involving birth injuries, maternal death and medical negligence. He advocates for improvements in patient safety through contributions to medical textbooks and literature, and in presentations across the country for various medical and legal groups and organizations including March of Dimes. He is also a member following invitation to AWHONN, a women’s health and neonatal nursing professional association that promotes patient safety.

Warning Signs of Post-Birth Complications

Common risk factors associated with post-birth complications can be subtle, so both at-risk and healthy mothers should be informed of the warning signs before they are discharged from the hospital. Women who are currently pregnant or may become pregnant in the future should learn the warning signs of post-birth complications to understand the difference between routine discomforts and symptoms of potentially more serious issues.

Review these post-birth warning signs with your partner or support person, and post them in a visible place in your home with your healthcare provider’s contact information and the location of the nearest emergency room.

Call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room if you experience one or more of the following:

  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Seizures
  • Thoughts of hurting yourself or your baby

These symptoms could be warning signs of a blood clot in your lungs, heart disease or other heart problems, eclampsia or postpartum depression.

Contact your healthcare provider if you experience one or more of the following:

  • Headache with vision change or one that does not get better even after taking medicine
  • Episiotomy or C-section site incision not healing
  • Temperature of 100.4°F or higher
  • Red or swollen leg that is painful or warm to touch
  • Heavy bleeding or clotting
  • Signs of depression

These symptoms could indicate high blood pressure or preeclampsia, infection, blood clots, obstetric hemorrhaging or postpartum depression. If your symptoms worsen or your healthcare provider cannot be reached, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room.

When contacting 911 or your healthcare provider, immediately notify them of the date you gave birth and the specific post-birth warning signs you are experiencing to alert them to the fact that your condition could be related to pregnancy.

Being prepared to recognize the warning signs of post-birth complications and knowing when to seek medical attention could save your life or the life of someone you love. Never hesitate to seek medical care if you get the feeling something is wrong, even if your symptoms are different than those described above, and seek a second opinion if your symptoms continue or worsen after you receive treatment.

For more information about pregnancy-related complications and warning signs, visit marchofdimes.org.

DISCLAIMER: The content on this site was produced for informational purposes only and is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always consult your physician or another qualified healthcare provider with any questions or concerns you may have regarding a medical condition.


¹Bacak, S. J., Berg,  C. J.,  Desmarais,  J.,  Hutchins,  E.,  Locke, E. (Eds.). (2006) State maternal mortality review: accomplishments of nine states. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from http://www.cdph.ca.gov/data/statistics/Documents/MO-CDC-ReportAccomplishments9States.pdf