Council Commentary

Celebrating Mother’s Day: Nurturing Maternal and Infant Health by Promoting Family Planning

On Mother’s Day, I think about the profound bond that’s formed between mothers and their infants. It begins in pregnancy (or even before) as a woman dreams about the baby she will have. At the time of birth, especially in the first hour and through the next weeks and months, the attachment takes hold as the new mother welcomes her baby and responds to his or her needs. It is a bond for life.

Throughout this process, a mother’s health influences her baby’s health, and optimizing a mother’s health begins before pregnancy. When planning her family, a woman may need to consider many factors, including whether she is emotionally, physically, and financially ready for a pregnancy. Being able to access a variety of safe and effective contraceptives and information about family planning is the first step toward safeguarding a woman’s health and that of her future baby.

Planning and preparing for the first pregnancy is essential, but planning a subsequent pregnancy is just as important. In fact, the risk of health complications for mothers and infants is highest during the first year after a baby is born, when he or she is fully dependent on the mother. And for several years after birth, a baby doesn’t sleep regularly, needs to be fed frequently, and requires a mother’s careful attention. Because these first few years postpartum are so important for optimizing the health and well-being of mothers and their babies, the World Health Organization recommends spacing births at least two years apart.

In many settings around the world, exclusive breastfeeding is practiced for the first several months after childbirth. It can be an effective way to delay pregnancy, but once a woman begins supplementing her infant’s diet, breastfeeds less often, or stops breastfeeding altogether, she is very likely to become pregnant again. If she doesn’t want to become pregnant, she needs access to safe and effective contraceptive methods—though options for breastfeeding women are limited.

The Population Council has developed a three-month progesterone contraceptive vaginal ring that can be used by postpartum women who are continuing to breastfeed at least four times a day. It can be inserted and removed by the mother herself and has been approved for use in eight Latin-American countries. Study results show that it does not affect a woman’s ability to produce breast milk, and that it is 98.5% effective in preventing pregnancy if used correctly. More studies are ongoing in India and three countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

As mothers, there is no greater gift we can give to our children than the gift of health—and this starts with taking care of our own health. We all benefit when we have access to modern contraception and can plan our pregnancies based on our life goals and our individual and family needs.

Dr. Ruth Merkatz, RN, PhD is the director of clinical development at the Population Council’s Center for Biomedical Research.