The heart undergoes natural changes during pregnancy to support a growing life. Heart complications can appear as the mother's body undergoes the stress of pregnancy. Cardiovascular disease is also the leading cause of pregnancy complications, so it is important to stay on top of heart-healthy habits for the benefit of the mother and the child.
Larissa Smith, D.O. specializes in obstetrics and gynecology at Utica Park Clinic. She shares the cardiovascular risks before, during and after pregnancy, and how pregnant women can take care of their hearts.
"Non-Hispanic black women and women over the age of 40 have increased chances of having cardiovascular complications in pregnancy," said Dr. Smith. "With pre-pregnancy obesity, there can already be some stress on the heart and then pregnancy adds more stress. And it gets worse if you have obstructive sleep apnea."
Having high blood pressure, or hypertension, before pregnancy can also elevate the risk of cardiovascular issues during pregnancy.
"It's great to think about these things and make goals before you get pregnant," Dr. Smith. "Talk to your doctor. Making good decisions before, during and after pregnancy does have lasting effects throughout your whole life. For you and the baby."
"Whenever we get pregnant, we increase our blood volume by about 50 percent, so your heart is pumping out more blood every time it's beating," said Dr. Smith. "Your heart rate also goes up about 10 to 20 beats."
Because of these changes, some women experience hypertension that they did not have before pregnancy. They can also experience preeclampsia, a hypertension disorder that puts more stress on the heart and can affect other organs in the body.
After delivering a baby, it takes time for the mother's heart rate and blood volume levels to return to pre-pregnancy levels.
"It takes about 10 months to make this baby, but it takes about six weeks for everything in our bodies to go back to normal," said Dr. Smith. "Our hearts, our uterus, everything has to heal afterward. It can take between three to six months for your heart to go back to where it was pre-pregnancy."
Breastfeeding has been shown to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease in the mother's lifetime.
"Six to 12 months of breastfeeding cumulatively throughout your lifetime reduces your risk of cardiovascular disease by 10 percent," said Dr. Smith. "The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breastfeeding children for at least the first 12 months of their lives."
How to stay heart healthy
Taking a pre-natal vitamin before and during pregnancy and exercising regularly can help keep your heart healthy during the physical stress of carrying a baby.
"I tell everyone, just do what you did before," said Dr. Smith. "If you were exercising every day and training, then do that if you feel good. If you weren't regularly active, don't start training for a marathon. Just try to get into the habit of 30 minutes of exercise per day."
Eating a heart-healthy diet with lots of fruits and vegetables and stopping smoking are two more effective ways to keep your heart healthy for you and your baby.
"Quitting smoking is the hardest thing, but it's a great decision to make during your pregnancy as well as afterward," said Dr. Smith. "It will help avoid exposing the children to secondhand smoke and teach them healthy habits they can carry through their lives."