Fatherhood and Maternal Health: An Overlooked but Lifesaving Connection

06/19/2015 04:12 pm ET | Updated Jun 18, 2016

It goes without saying that Father's Day is a time to celebrate the important role that a father plays in his children's lives. As a father (and, recently, a grandfather), this role has been the most rewarding experience of my life. But for me as a physician from India, this day is also a reminder that becoming a father comes with another, often forgotten role: safeguarding the health of the new mother.

During my medical training in India, I bore witness to one of a doctor's worst nightmares: the death of a woman during childbirth. In India, this tragedy still happens by the thousands every year, but fortunately the country is making impressive progress and the number of maternal deaths is declining rapidly. Sadly and surprisingly, the trend is moving in the opposite direction in the U.S.

It turns out that here in America women are dying or nearly dying during pregnancy and childbirth at rates more than double those of 25 years ago. In fact, we rank 64th in the world in maternal mortality, and an estimated 60,000 women suffer life-threatening emergencies (called "near misses") every year.

But the statistic I find the most alarming is that two out of every three maternal deaths occur in the six weeks after a woman gives birth. That's why I'm writing this article today: because fathers have the ability to help prevent these tragedies by being informed and extra attentive to their partner in the weeks following childbirth.

The first few weeks after a child is born are some of the most special. With family and friends showering women with gifts and taking hundreds of photos, hardly a day goes by that isn't focused on that precious new little one. But that's exactly the challenge: all the attention is on the baby, and women - as well as their friends and family - tend to forget about their own health and how their body is recovering.

As fathers, we are in the important position of not only being there for the new baby, but also for the new mom. First and foremost, fathers should be on the lookout for warning signs in the woman's health. How does she appear? Is she experiencing any heavier-than-normal bleeding? Any chest pain or trouble breathing? Does she have a fever? Are her legs swollen or particularly tender? Is there pain in her abdomen?

All of these are indicators of possible postpartum complications, and all should be monitored by those closest to the new mother, especially by fathers. It's tempting to assume that everything is fine because the pregnancy and childbirth went smoothly, but many of these problems occur even in the healthiest women, and could becoming life-threatening if undetected. Fathers should be informed about what to watch for - particularly in the days immediately following childbirth - and how they can act quickly and appropriately if a condition does arise.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends that new mothers receive a postpartum check-up from a health provider four to six weeks after delivery. Fathers should encourage their partners to attend - and accompany them if possible. These visits are important for identifying warning signs of complications, screening for postpartum depression and discussing family planning options - all of which are key to ensuring safe and healthy pregnancies and childbirths in the future. In fact, birth spacing is proven to have a positive effect on women's health, and fathers factor prominently in how long a woman waits before her next pregnancy.

When we think about Father's Day, our minds might turn to baseball catches, barbecues and countless other memories of fathers spending time with their children. It's easy to forget the role they play in maternal health. In 2015, no woman should die giving life. Let's remember that fathers can help make that possible.