Reassessing Unmet Need for Family Planning in the Postpartum Period

Despite renewed interest in postpartum family planning programs, the question of the time at which women should be expected to start contraception after a birth remains unanswered. Three indicators of postpartum unmet need consider women to be fully exposed to the risk of pregnancy at different times: right after delivery (prospective indicator), after six months of amenorrhea (intermediate indicator), and at the end of amenorrhea (classic indicator). DHS data from 57 countries in 2005–13 indicate that 62 percent (prospective), 43 percent (intermediate), and 32 percent (classic) of women in the first year after a birth have an unmet need for contraception (40 percent when including abstinence). While the protection afforded by postpartum abstinence and lactational amenorrhea lowers unmet need, further analysis shows that women also often rely on these methods without being actually protected. Programs should acknowledge these methods’ widespread use and inform women about their limits. Also, the respective advantages of targeting the postnatal period, the end of six months of amenorrhea/exclusive breastfeeding, or the resumption of sexual intercourse to offer contraceptive services should be tested.