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Maternal, Infant, and Child Health

Mother Playing with Baby Girl


Improve the health and well-being of women, infants, children, and families.


Improving the well-being of mothers, infants, and children is an important public health goal for the United States. Their well-being determines the health of the next generation and can help predict future public health challenges for families, communities, and the health care system. The objectives of the Maternal, Infant, and Child Health topic area address a wide range of conditions, health behaviors, and health systems indicators that affect the health, wellness, and quality of life of women, children, and families.

Why Are Maternal, Infant, and Child Health Important?

Pregnancy can provide an opportunity to identify existing health risks in women and to prevent future health problems for women and their children. These health risks may include:

  • Hypertension and heart disease
  • Diabetes
  • Depression
  • Genetic conditions
  • Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)
  • Tobacco use and alcohol abuse
  • Inadequate nutrition
  • Unhealthy weight

The risk of maternal and infant mortality and pregnancy-related complications can be reduced by increasing access to quality preconception (before pregnancy) and interconception (between pregnancies) care.1 Moreover, healthy birth outcomes and early identification and treatment of health conditions among infants can prevent death or disability and enable children to reach their full potential.2, 3, 4

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Understanding Maternal, Infant, and Child Health

Many factors can affect pregnancy and childbirth, including:

  • Preconception health status
  • Age
  • Access to appropriate preconception and interconception health care
  • Poverty

Infant and child health are similarly influenced by sociodemographic factors, such as family income, but are also linked to the physical and mental health of parents and caregivers.

There are racial and ethnic disparities in mortality and morbidity for mothers and children, particularly for African Americans.3, 5, 6 These differences are likely the result of many factors.

Social Determinants of Maternal Health

These include prepregnancy health behaviors and health status,7 which are influenced by a variety of environmental and social factors such as access to health care and chronic stress.8

Physical Determinants of Maternal Health

Common barriers to a healthy pregnancy and birth include lack of access to appropriate health care before and during pregnancy. In addition, environmental factors can shape a woman’s overall health status before, during, and after pregnancy by:

  • Affecting her health directly.
  • Affecting her ability to engage in healthy behaviors.

Social Determinants of Infant and Child Health

The social determinants that influence maternal health also affect pregnancy outcomes and infant health. Racial and ethnic disparities in infant mortality exist, particularly for African American infants.9 Child health status varies by both race and ethnicity, as well as by family income10 and related factors, including educational attainment among household members and health insurance coverage.11

Physical Determinants of Infant and Child Health

The cognitive and physical development of infants and children is influenced by the health, nutrition, and behaviors of their mothers during pregnancy and early childhood. Breast milk is widely acknowledged to be the most complete form of nutrition for most infants, with a range of benefits for their health, growth, immunity, and development.12, 13 Furthermore, children reared in safe and nurturing families and neighborhoods, free from maltreatment and other social adversities, are more likely to have better outcomes as adults.14, 15

Emerging Issues in Maternal, Infant, and Child Health

Recent efforts to address persistent disparities in maternal, infant, and child health have employed a “life course” perspective to health promotion and disease prevention. At the start of the decade, fewer than half of all pregnancies are planned. Unintended pregnancy is associated with a host of public health concerns. In response, preconception health initiatives have been aimed at improving the health of a woman before she becomes pregnant through a variety of evidence-based interventions.16

The life course perspective also supports the examination of quality of life, including the challenges of male and female fertility. An estimated 7.3 million American women ages 15 to 44 have received infertility services (including counseling and diagnosis) in their lifetime.17 Infertility is an area where health disparities are large, particularly among African American women,18 and may only continue to increase as childbearing practices change over time.


1Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). Recommendations to improve preconception health and health care—United States: A report of the CDC/ATSDR Preconception Care Work Group and the Select Panel on Preconception Care. Atlanta: CDC; 2006. 23 p. (MMWR Recomm Rep. 2006;55[RR-06]).

2Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Newborn screening for cystic fibrosis: evaluation of benefits and risks and recommendations for state newborn screening programs. Atlanta: CDC; 2004. 37 p. (MMWR Recommen Reps. 2004;53[RR-13]).

3Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Identifying infants with hearing loss—United States, 1999–2007. Atlanta: CDC; 2010. (MMWR. 2010;59[8]:220-3).

4Watson MS, Mann MY, Lloyd-Puryear MA, et al.; American College of Medical Genetics, Newborn Screening Expert Group. Newborn screening: Toward a uniform screening panel and system [executive summary]. Pediatrics. 2006;117(5 Pt. 2):S296-307.

5Tucker MJ, Berg CJ, Callaghan WM, et al. The black-white disparity in pregnancy-related mortality from 5 conditions: Differences in prevalence and case-fatality rates. Am J Public Health. 2007 February 1;97(2):247-51.

6Williams DR, Collins C. US Socioeconomic and racial differences in health: Patterns and explanations. Ann Rev Soc. 1995;21:349-86.

7Bryant AS, Worjoloh A, Caughey AB, et al. Racial/ethnic disparities in obstetric outcomes and care: Prevalence and determinants. Am J Obstet Gynecol. 2010 Apr;202(4):335-43.

8Williams DR, Collins C. US Socioeconomic and racial differences in health: Patterns and explanations. Ann Rev Soc. 1995;21:349-86.

9Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Division of Vital Statistics; Martin JA, Hamilton BE, Sutton PD, et al. Births: Final data for 2006. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics; 2009 January 7. Report No. 57(7).

10Larson K, Halfon N. Family income gradients in the health and health care access of US children [Internet]. Matern Child Health J. 2010 Jun 5;14(3):332-42.

11Larson K, Russ SA, Crall JJ, et al. Influence of multiple social risks on children’s health. Pediatrics. 2008 Feb 1;121(2):337-44.

12US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Office on Women’s Health. HHS blueprint for action on breastfeeding. Washington: HHS; 2000.

13Ip S, Chung M, Raman G, et al. Breastfeeding and maternal and infant health outcomes in developed countries. Rockville, MD: Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ); 2007 Apr. (Report/Technology Assessment, No. 153. AHRQ Publication No. 07-E007).

14National Research Council and Institute of Medicine; Board on Children, Youth, and Families,Commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. From neurons to neighborhoods: The science of early childhood development. Shonkoff J, Philips D, editors. Washington: National Academy Press; 2000. 612 p.

15Anda RF, Felitti VJ, Walker J, et al. The enduring effects of abuse and related adverse experiences in childhood: A convergence of evidence from neurobiology and epidemiology. Eur Arch Psychiatry Clin Neurosci. 2006 Apr;256(3):174-86.

16Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). Recommendations to improve preconception health and health care—United States: A report of the CDC/ATSDR Preconception Care Work Group and the Select Panel on Preconception Care. MMWR 2006;55(RR-6).

17Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics; Chandra A, Martinez GM, Mosher WD, et al. Fertility, family planning, and reproductive health of US women: Data from the 2002 National Survey of Family Growth. Vital Health Stat. 2005;23(25):1-160.

18Wellons MF, Lewis CE, Schwartz SM, et al. Racial differences in self-reported infertility and risk factors for infertility in a cohort of black and white women: The CARDIA Women’s Study. Fertil Steril. 2008 Nov;90(5):1640-8.

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