If you are planning to have a baby soon, some simple lifestyle changes can help things go well. Don’t worry if you are already pregnant. It is never too late to take good care of yourself, plus you can use this information before you get pregnant next time around. All of these recommendations are based on statistical risk—most babies do fine even with some maternal indiscretions. But why take unnecessary chances?
So what do you need to do?
- Get in shape. Normal body weight, strength, and stamina make pregnancy easier and healthier. Now is a great time to sart toning up. Strong abdominal muscles prevent low back pain; regular aerobic exercise, if continued through the pregancy, make labor easier. Being fit from the start helps you stay comfortable as you carry your growing baby.
- Eat well. You don’t need to eat specific foods while you are trying to conceive, but some fish high in mercury content should be avoided for three months before conception and throughout pregnancy. For a full list of which fish and other foods to avoid, see the information from the Centers for Disease Control.
- Take folic acid. Here is one simple recommendation that will help prevent birth defects—take a folic acid supplement every day. 400 micrograms or 0.4 milligrams of folic acid is now recommended for all women in their childbearing years, regardless of whether they are trying to get pregnant. The amount of folic acid most women get in the diet just isn’t enough. 400 micrograms a day can be found in folic acid supplements, in any women’s multivitamin, and in over-the-counter prenatal vitamins. One word to the wise here: more is not better. Mega-doses of vitamins are not good for a developing embryo and should be avoided, unless prescribed by your physician.
- Avoid acohol and drugs. You’ve probably already heard that alcohol causes birth defects. Yet many women come to their first prenatal appointment upset that they had some drinks before they knew that they had conceived. A rare glass of wine probably doesn’t cause harm, but daily moderate drinking or episodic heavy drinking can cause fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), with mental retardation, unusual facial features, and poor growth. Subtle problems may be found with lower levels of alcohol use. Recreational drugs may also be dangerous to the developing baby. Cocaine causes spasms of the blood vessels, and can lead to miscarriage, preterm delivery, poor fetal growth and even fetal death. Marijuana probably has some of the same risks as cigarettes, since toxins get into the bloodstream and reach the baby. If you wouldn’t let your child use a drug, you shouldn’t use it during pregnancy. Fertility is also decreased in men who smoke marijuana daily.
- Be a nonsmoker. Babies of smokers are more likely to deliver early and to be smaller than they should be—a half a pound smaller per pack-a-day smoked. Infertility and miscarriage are more frequent in smokers, too. Research has even shown that SIDS, sudden infant death syndrome, is more common if the mother smoked. The best approach is to start pregnancy as a non-smoker. If you need help quitting, talk to your doctor or midwife, and check out this helpful Internet resource.
- Limit caffeine. One or two caffeinated drinks a day is probably OK. Excessive caffeine has been associated with miscarriage.
- Avoid any unnecessary medications. If you take prescribed medicine, be sure your doctor is aware that you may become pregnant.
Many doctors and midwives offer a pre-conception appointment, so you can get individualized health and lifestyle advice. For women who aren’t in perfect health or who have potentially toxic exposures, taking care of yourself before pregnancy assures that you will be in your best shape in early on when the baby’s organs start to form. Remember, early embryonic development begins before you may know that you are pregnant, and weeks before you start prenatal care. Now is the best time to start taking care of your baby-to-be!