8 Surprising Facts About Prenatal Care Around the World

Eye-opening info about how moms-to-be experience those nine months in different parts of the globe — some of it weird and some of it downright scary.
save article
profile picture of Cynthia Ramnarace
Updated March 2, 2017
Hero Image

Prenatal care in the US follows a pretty standard formula: You give a urine sample, your doctor weighs and measures you, and you get a refill of your prenatal vitamins. Maybe you discuss what you’re eating, how you’re feeling and your plans for the birth.

But this standard of care is uniquely American. In many countries, pregnant women have fewer prenatal visits. In some poor countries, if you see a health care provider _once _before giving birth, you’re among the lucky ones. And then there are cultural differences with how health care is delivered and how pregnancy is viewed.

In Belgium, massages are prescribed

The goal of prenatal care is to keep mom and baby healthy. In Belgium, that includes keeping mom ache-free and helping her stress less. “The doctors over here prescribe massages for moms-to-be,” says travel writer Sheridan Becker, who gave birth to both of her children in Brussels, “and those massages are covered by European insurance companies. Really.”

And as part of their care, women meet with a medical social worker who helps prepare them psychologically for the birth and the challenges of breastfeeding. She might also attend the doctor’s visit to make sure the mom-to-be understands all of the medical lingo and feels supported through her prenatal visit.

In Costa Rica, OBs have plenty of time

Cynthia Cendreda arrived in Costa Rica three weeks before her due date. Up until then, her experience with her American ob-gyn had been methodical and efficient. So when her Costa Rican doctor spent nearly two hours talking with her and her husband about their medical history and birth plan, Cendreda was pleasantly surprised.

“In the US, we waited an average of 20 minutes to see the doctor, and each time I was largely examined by a nurse-practitioner,” says Cendreda. “When the doctor came in, we spent just a few minutes with him — long enough for him to review my chart and schedule another appointment. With my Costa Rican OB, we felt immense closeness because he spent time with me. I don’t think there was any better reassurance that I was in good hands.”

Related Video

In France, pregnant women fear the scale

In the US, women of healthy weight are advised to gain between 25 and 35 pounds during pregnancy. And while modest weight gain is better for mom and baby, few American doctors would give the treatment mom Tamar McLachlan received while she was pregnant in Paris.

“You’re not supposed to gain too much weight, and you’re reprimanded if you do,” says McLachlan. “It’s almost as if you’re on a diet while pregnant. ‘Don’t eat pasta. No, don’t eat that baguette.’ Because in Paris, how you look is critical. Breastfeeding is even frowned upon, because it could ruin your figure.”

Around the world, many women are lucky to have just one prenatal visit

The average American woman will have around 15 prenatal visits during a normal 40-week pregnancy. In much of the developing world, however, just getting one prenatal visit is a success. Four is considered a victory.

“By the end of my pregnancy, I will have had over 18 prenatal appointments, whereas the World Health Organization recommends only four prenatal visits,” says Kate Mitchell, manager of the knowledge management system of the Maternal Health Task Force for the Women and Health Initiative at The Harvard School of Public Health. “And in the developing world, for pregnant women who actually get to those four prenatal visits, that’s considered a huge success.”

The World Health Organization reports that 81 percent of women in developing countries have one prenatal visit, but only 36 percent have the recommended four visits.

The visits may be fewer, but they’re long

In the developing world (which includes countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa and South Asia), health care providers try to cram a lot of information into what might be, if they’re lucky, one of four visits a woman has during her pregnancy. In Tanzania, a study showed that first prenatal visits lasted an average of 46 minutes, with follow-up visits lasting more than a half hour. These visits are focused mostly on educating women about warning signs of problems during pregnancy.

“During those visits, providers focus on tetanus vaccination and screening, treatment of infections and screening for high blood pressure,” says Mitchell. “High blood pressure is really important because it’s an indicator of eclampsia and preeclampsia, which is a major maternal issue. There’s also talk about malaria prevention, as well as screening and treatment for HIV, because if you can intervene during the prenatal period, then you can prevent mother-to-child transmission.”

“Birth plan” means different things in different places

Your  birth plan might include your iPod playlist and whether you want an epidural. In the third world, the planning process is quite different. Prenatal care includes helping women decide whether they’ll deliver at home or at a hospital and what they’ll do if there’s an emergency (especially in places where “dialing 911” isn’t an option). If they want a hospital birth, how will they get there? And in places where there is no health insurance or socialized medicine, women are also advised to set aside money to pay for the birth and any unexpected emergencies, says Mitchell.

Prenatal care saves moms

There are some scary scenarios that can be completely avoided. In Africa, an estimated 25 percent of maternal deaths occur during pregnancy. As many as half of those deaths are due to  hypertension and hemorrhage, conditions that could have been treated with adequate prenatal care, according to the World Health Organization.

Prenatal care saves babies

With prenatal care, third-world moms are more likely to be vaccinated for tetanus, use bed nets to prevent malaria, receive iron and folic acid to treat  anemia and be treated for  syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases that can lead to stillbirth and infant death.

Prenatal care is critically important to the well-being of both mom and baby. So each time you try to breathe calmly while having your blood pressure taken or cringe because you have to submit yet another urine sample, remember that these little things are crucial to a healthy pregnancy — and that for many women, having access to this type of care is a luxury.

save article

Next on Your Reading List

woman shopping for flowy dress
How to Keep Your Pregnancy a Secret in the First Trimester
Fact Checked by G. O’Hara
Harry Styles performs on stage during The BRIT Awards 2023 at The O2 Arena on February 11, 2023 in London, England
Harry Styles Stalls Concert So Pregnant Mom Can Go Pee
By Wyndi Kappes
Imunek Williams school bus driver saves kids from burning bus while 8 months pregnant
Pregnant Driver Saves Students From Burning Bus
By Wyndi Kappes
close up of smiling mother cuddling baby
How Getting Lost in Motherhood Helped Me Find Myself
By Christine Carpenter
Gold medalist Mallory Weggemann of Team United States poses during the women’s 200m individual medley - SM7 medal ceremony on day 3 of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre on August 27, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan
Paralympian Mallory Weggemann Swims at Nationals Six Months Pregnant
By Wyndi Kappes
27 slides
The Best Movies to Watch While Pregnant
The Best Movies to Watch While Pregnant
By Holly Pevzner
close up of pregnant person holding belly
Where to Shop for Gender-Neutral Pregnancy Clothing
By Ashley Zielger
Pregnant Bindi Irwin with her husband Chandler and a giraffe in the background at the zoo.
Bindi Irwin on Pregnancy, Baby Names and Carrying on Her Father’s Legacy
By Lauren Kay
illustrated pregnant woman with her hands up in anger
5 Things a Pregnant Woman Never Wants to Hear
By The Bump Editors
happy pregnant woman standing in the sun against neutral background
How to Change Your Last Name Before Baby Arrives
By The Bump Editors
black and white image of woman and doctor's hands looking at sonogram
US Birth Rates Hit Their Lowest Level in 35 Years, CDC Reports
By Nehal Aggarwal
The Worst Things to Say to a Pregnant Woman
The Worst Things to Say to a Pregnant Woman
By Caitlin Brody
couple looking away over body of water
CDC: Birth Rates in the US Have Reached an All-Time Low
By Stephanie Grassullo
woman in her third trimester of pregnancy
There’s Finally Science to Prove That Pregnant Women Need Their Personal Space
By Stephanie Grassullo
mid-section of couple holding hands and walking
CDC: Birth Rates in the US Haven’t Been This Low in More Than Three Decades
By Stephanie Grassullo
meghan markle in new york city for her baby shower
Meghan Markle's NYC Baby Shower Stirs Convincing Theories on the Royal Baby's Sex
By Stephanie Grassullo
Women in their 30s are having more babies than younger women.
For the First Time Ever, Women in Their 30s Are Having More Babies Than Younger Women
By Stephanie Grassullo
meghan markle's birth location is revealed
The Lindo Wing Is Reportedly Prepping for Meghan Markle's Delivery
By Stephanie Grassullo
couple is forced to pack up their stuff and move after having a baby.
Landlord Forces Couple to Move Because They Had a Baby
By Stephanie Grassullo
surprised baby's face
There Aren't Enough Babies Being Born in the US, CDC Says
By Stephanie Grassullo
Article removed.
Article removed.
Name added. View Your List