There seems to be a lot of confusion in the use of the terms postpartum care and postnatal care. I recently conducted a literature review on factors affecting the use of postpartum care in developing countries. During this review, I noticed that while some authors used postnatal care to refer to care provided to the baby and mother, others used the term to refer to care provided to the mother. However, care provided to the mother should be referenced as postpartum care, not postnatal care.
Even among academics, postpartum care and postnatal care have been used interchangeably. The only thing postpartum care and postnatal care share in common is the period during which care is received – after the birth of a baby. A widely accepted definition of the postpartum and postnatal periods is the time immediately after birth to 6 weeks after birth of a baby. A common confusion in the use of the terms postpartum care and postnatal care stems from the reference to timing. To the extent that both terms are pointing to time after birth, they can be used interchangeably. However, postpartum care and postnatal care have different connotations when it comes to who is the intended recipient of the care provided. Specifically, postpartum care refers to care provided to the mother after the birth of a baby, while postnatal care refers to the care of the baby after birth.
The interchangeable use of the terms antepartum care and antenatal care may help explain why so often postpartum care and postnatal care lose their distinct meanings. Antepartum care is care given to pregnant women from conception to the onset of labor. Care during this period is also called antenatal care or prenatal care. The interchangeable use of antepartum and antenatal (prenatal) care makes sense because during this time, the woman is pregnant with the baby, and care for the two is not entirely separate. It is much more important to be specific in the period after birth because care for the mother after birth is quite different from care for the baby, whether in the immediate postpartum period or at follow-up visits. Postpartum visits are usually provided through the woman’s obstetric office, while a pediatrician is responsible for the baby’s health and well-being. In developing countries, although both postpartum and postnatal care may be provided by the same maternity care provider (most commonly a nurse/midwife), care provided to the mother is still different from care provided to the baby.
It creates a lot of confusion and makes the maternity care literature difficult to navigate when there is no clear distinction between postpartum care and postnatal care in the literature. One should not have to read a significant portion of an article just to determine whether the study was focused on care for the mother, care for the baby, or both. The term postpartum care, NOT postnatal care, should be used to reference care of the mother, at all times. This I believe, will make the literature clearer and easier to navigate.
More importantly, distinctions between the two should be made clear to patients, since postpartum care is often a neglected aspect of maternity care. Many women are aware of the need for postnatal care for their babies, but not the need for postpartum care for their own health and wellbeing. From my integrative review, the view that postpartum care is not needed and a lack of awareness about postpartum care were frequent reasons women gave for not attending postpartum visits.
Let’s be specific in terminology, and let’s be specific in informing patients about the need and importance of postpartum care!