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Maternal Health Literacy: Foundation of personal and public health


Part 1 Maternal health literacy as skills
A life skill is a collection of skills necessary for full participation in everyday life.
Maternal health literacy is a life skill that mothers use to manage personal and
child health and healthcare.  It has been defined as the cognitive & social skills
that determine a mother’s motivation and ability to act on information in ways
that improve health (Renkert and Nutbeam, 2001).
 
Cognitive skills are used to understand information; they include basic literacy skills,
reading and numeracy (ability to use numbers). A mother might use these basic skills
to learn about ear aches, and make an appointment to take her child to see a clinician.
So basic literacy skills are the essential foundation for health literacy.
 
Social skills are used to make personal meaning from information, including speaking
and listening. The mother whose child has an ear ache uses these skills when she discusses
with the clinician the information on ear aches to understand why her child has them and
how she might prevent them.
 
Reflective skills combine cognitive and social skills to think critically, make choices,
formulate plans, and take action.  The mother in our example uses reflective skills when
she mulls over what the doctor said, what she read, her experience of her child’s ear ache,
her actions and parenting practices, and her discussion with her mother about treatment
options and possible preventive measures. Some literacy scholars say that reflective skills
are so essential to applying information in context that it should be classified as a basic skill.
So we could say there are 4Rs: reading, ‘riting, ‘rithmatic, and reflection.
 
Health literacy means empowerment (WHO 2013)
A health literate mother combines all these skills to make health related choices and transform
those choice into desired action and outcomes. That is the World Bank’s definition of
empowerment.  Say the mother chooses to stop putting her baby to bed with a bottle. She takes
that step, and she enjoys her desired outcome, a happy ear-ache free baby. We say this mother
is empowered for health. 
 
Her health literacy skills enable her to minimize risk, maximize protective factors, and optimize
health promotion. In this way, a mother’s health literacy forms the foundation for her health and
her child’s health throughout their lives.
 
Many factors, in addition to skills, interact to determine a woman’s maternal health literacy.
More on that next time.
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