If you are planning to have a baby soon, there is a lot to do as, surely, you want to have the healthiest baby possible. Although no one can promise you an easy pregnancy and a healthy baby, this article covers some important things you can do to improve your chances.
Conception occurs about two weeks before your period is due. This means you may not even know you’re pregnant until more than three weeks later. Yet your baby is most sensitive to harm two to eight weeks after conception.
This is when your baby’s features and organs, such as the heart and kidneys, begin to form. Anything you eat, drink, smoke or are exposed to can affect your baby. That’s why it’s best to start acting as if you’re pregnant before you are.
Researchers have concluded that women who are fit are more likely to have fit children. In fact, women who are overweight during pregnancy tend to have overweight babies and overweight children. At the age of 11, for example, 46 per cent of children of obese mothers were overweight, compared with 12 per cent of children of non-obese mothers.
Diabetes in pregnancy is another risk factor. This same study found that children whose mothers developed diabetes while pregnant had a greater chance of being overweight by the age of 11.
So, if you are thinking about getting pregnant, you have a wonderful opportunity to lay a strong foundation of health for your child. Why not start eating well and learning all you can about creating healthy children now? You are going to be a parent the rest of your life. You can do so much to make your parenting experience a joyful one by taking responsibility for your own physical and emotional health before becoming pregnant. If you have not been disciplined enough to eat well before getting pregnant, perhaps the idea of eating well for your child will be enough to motivate you.
In preparation for pregnancy you should:
■ Take folic acid. Neural tube defects are abnormalities that occur in the development of the spinal cord and brain of some babies. It is estimated that around two-thirds of neural tube defects can be prevented through increasing folate intake at least a month before pregnancy and during the first three months of pregnancy. Some foods that contain folate include fortified breads and breakfast cereals, beans, leafy green vegetables and orange juice. However, food intake is not enough and supplementation is recommended.
■ Get a check-up before pregnancy. Preconception care is recommended as medical care provided prior to pregnancy. The goal is to assess your health status and identify health and lifestyle risks that may affect your pregnancy.
■ Not forget about dental health. A dental check-up is recommended before you get pregnant. There is evidence which suggests that periodontal disease, a bacterial infection that affects the gums and bones supporting the teeth, can lead to premature labour and low-birthweight babies. In fact, one large study found that pregnant women with periodontal disease may be seven times more likely to have a premature baby. Another study shows an association between gum disease and an increased risk of pre-eclampsia, a pregnancy complication marked by high blood pressure, fluid retention and protein in the urine.
■ Eat right and maintain a healthy weight. Before conception, it is important to have a healthy weight. Being overweight or underweight can affect pregnancy outcomes. A healthy diet includes food from the five food groups.
Carbohydrates – complex carbohydrates such as pasta, rice and cereals are better than processed carbohydrates like white bread, cakes and biscuits.
Fruit and vegetables – try to eat five portions a day.
Protein – you can get the protein you need from meat, fish, eggs, pulses and beans (choose lower fat types).
Milk and milk products – these contain lots of calcium, which is important for bone development
Fat – try to get your fat intake from vegetable sources (olive oil), or oily fish like salmon, herring or mackerel, and reduce the unhealthy saturated and trans fats.
Adhere to a fitness plan and you’ll be rewarded with a healthy body that’s fit for pregnancy. Working up a little sweat is a great way to relieve the stress that can get in the way of getting pregnant.
Adhere to a fitness plan and you’ll be rewarded with a healthy body that’s fit for pregnancy
According to the World Health Organisation, adults aged 18 to 64 should do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity throughout the week or at least 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity or an equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity activity. Once pregnant, remember that it is recommended that you continue exercising following the advice of your doctor.
■ Cut back on caffeine. Limit the coffee you drink to no more than one cup each day. Remember, the amount of caffeine in coffee varies, depending upon the type of coffee, how it is prepared and the amount of coffee used. Caffeine can also be found in soft drinks, medications and other foods. Try coffees and teas that are decaffeinated, or water, which is the best drink to have.
■ Stop smoking and avoid passive smoke. Smoking may make it harder for you to get pregnant. If you smoke while you’re pregnant, your baby is at greater risk of being born prematurely or too small. Smoking during pregnancy increases the risk of pregnancy complications and sudden infant death syndrome. The best time to stop smoking is before you get pregnant. If you need help, ask your healthcare provider for advice or contact the Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Directorate on 2326 6000 or tobacco helpline on 8007 3333. Passive smoke can also be harmful.
■ Stop drinking alcohol. Drinking alcohol (beer, liquor, wine and wine coolers) can make it harder for you to get pregnant. Drinking alcohol before or during pregnancy can cause your baby to have conditions that can create lifelong problems such as fetal alcohol syndrome, a combination of physical and mental defects, low birthweight, heart defects, growth problems and problems with brain development.
■ Do not use illegal drugs. Taking illegal drugs during pregnancy is risky for mother and baby. Women who use cocaine are at higher risk of miscarriage or preterm labour. Babies exposed to heroin are likely to be born addicted. Babies exposed to illegal drugs also are more likely to have learning or behavioural problems later in life.
■ Avoid infections. Some infections can harm a developing baby. Wash your hands well with soap and water after using the bathroom or blowing your nose. Avoid potentially unsafe foods such as raw meat and fish and unpasteurised milk products. Wash all fruits and vegetables well. If you have a cat, ask someone else to change the litter box. Stay away from rodents, including pet mice, hamsters and guinea pigs. Find out if you have sexually transmitted infections. Without treatment, these infections pose special risks for pregnant women and their babies.
■ Check that you’re vaccinated. Rubella (German measles) is a mild illness in children and adults but it can seriously affect your unborn baby. If you plan to become pregnant, make sure you are vaccinated at least several months before you stop using birth control. Your doctor will advise you regarding vaccinations and medical issues which you will want to address in advance.
■ Limit exposure to hazards. Avoid hazardous chemicals like cleaning supplies and insect killers. Stay away from strong-smelling cleansers, chemicals and paint. You may reduce your risk by wearing rubber gloves and working in a well-ventilated area. If your water pipes are old, you may want to have them tested for lead or drink filtered or bottled water. Ask your healthcare provider for advice about hazardous substances and chemicals.
■ Learn about genetics. Know your family’s medical history. Now is a good time to learn your partner’s family medical history as well. If there are diseases that run in either of your families, your healthcare provider might recommend genetic counselling or tests that could provide valuable information regarding a future pregnancy.
■ Avoid stress. Many things can be stressful in a woman’s life. Think about what makes you stressful. What would help reduce stress or help you deal with it? Too much stress may be harmful for you and your baby. High levels of stress may increase the risk of preterm labour and low birthweight. Start reducing stress now. Identify causes of stress and try to reduce them. Ask partners, family and friends for emotional support. Or get professional help. Use relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing.
Don’t forget to help the father get healthy too. To improve your chances of getting pregnant, it’s important for your partner to take care of himself, exercise, eat right and stop smoking, drinking or taking illegal drugs.
Prof. Charmaine Gauci is Superintendent of Public Health.
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