If you are thinking of having a baby, it is never too early to get your body ready for pregnancy. A healthy baby starts with a healthy mother.
Preconception or pre-pregnancy health is the state of your health before pregnancy. Being healthy before getting pregnant not only improves the chances of getting pregnant, but it also decreases the risk of pregnancy complications. Whether it is your first, third, or last baby, a woman’s body goes through a lot of changes to make a baby, every baby, every time.
The outcome of a pregnancy depends a lot on preconception health, and since every woman’s body is different, the amount of time needed to prepare the body for pregnancy differs. Some women need just a few months to get ready, while some might need longer. Regardless of how long it might take for your body to get ready, starting on time will make pregnancy healthier and safer. To increase the chances of a healthy and safe pregnancy, here are some things you should do prior to getting pregnant.
1. Pre-pregnancy Care and Checkup
Most women planning to have a baby visit their doctor for the first time when they miss their period or when they are trying to confirm a positive pregnancy test. However, the best time to talk with your doctor about pregnancy is at least 3 months prior to getting pregnant or trying for a baby. This is because being healthy improves your chances of conceiving as well as having a safe pregnancy.
A pre-pregnancy checkup or preconception care is a medical checkup (or series of medical visits) with your doctor that occur before you get pregnant. During this visit, your doctor will make sure your body is healthy enough for a pregnancy. Your healthcare provider will evaluate your medical and family history and possibly treat and prevent health conditions that might make it hard to get pregnant or have a successful pregnancy. Your doctor may do a complete physical assessment, check that your vaccinations are up to date, order some blood work, and offer some health advice that can improve your chances of having a healthy pregnancy. Your doctor may also evaluate your diet, vitamins, and lifestyle as well as discuss the safety of your current medications during pregnancy.
At this appointment, be sure to discuss any safety issues or concerns you many have at home and at work. Even if this is not your first baby, you should still get a pre-pregnancy checkup before subsequent pregnancies because your body changes with each pregnancy.
2. Collect your Family Health History
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a family history is a record of the disease and health conditions in your family. The best way to collect your family history is to talk to other family members and look at family medical records of any previous children, parents, grandparents, siblings, half-siblings, aunts, uncles, nephews, and nieces when possible.
A family health history includes major health conditions as well as age at diagnosis of the diseases; age at death of any close family member; causes of death; and other important factors such as ethnic background. Since a baby inherits genes from both parents, you should also consider collecting the family health history of the baby’s father when possible.
If you plan on using a sperm donor to get pregnant, save all family history information you receive about the donor. Although you can use whatever tool that works best for you to collect your family health history, the CDC recommends this Surgeon General’s webtool to collect and track your family health history. Remember to take this family health information to your pre-pregnancy or first pregnancy appointment.
3. Take Folic Acid Daily
Folic acid is a B vitamin needed by our bodies to make new cells. During the early days of the baby’s development, folic acid helps to form the neural tube. The neural tube is what eventually forms the baby’s brain and spinal cord. The CDC recommends that all women of childbearing age take 400 mcg of folic acid daily to avoid early-pregnancy neural tube defects in developing babies.
Neural tube defects are permanent birth defects of the brain, spine, and spinal cord that usually occur around 3-4 weeks after conception, typically before most women even know they are pregnant. Although there are many types of neural tube birth defects, the two most common ones are spina bifida, where the fetal spinal cord does not close completely, typically leading to some sort of paralysis of the leg and other complications, and anencephaly, where most of the brain or skull do not develop. Getting the right amount of folic acid before pregnancy helps to prevent most of these neural tube effects.
Your healthcare provider will typically recommend that you take a minimum of 400 mcg of folic acid before you get pregnant and through the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. If you are at a higher risk of having a baby with neural tube defects, your doctor might recommend a much higher dose. Folic acid supplements can be taken as a single supplement that contains just folic acid, as part of a prenatal vitamin with other necessary nutrients for your developing baby, or as a component of a multivitamin for general health and wellness.
4. Maintain a Healthy Weight
Weight plays a major role in the outcome of pregnancy. Typically, your healthcare provider will check your body mass index (BMI), which measures your body fat based on your health and weight, and recommend an appropriate healthy pre-pregnancy weight. Knowing your BMI can also help your doctor figure out a healthy weight gain for you during pregnancy.
There are several tools to calculate your BMI including a BMI calculator from the CDC. Being underweight or overweight can lead to health complications during pregnancy, including birth defects, which can cause long-lasting problems for your baby; high blood pressure, which can lead to severe complications for mother and baby; and diabetes, which can lead to organ damage for a pregnant mother as well as other medical complications for the baby.
5. Exercise Regularly
Establishing and maintaining a regular exercise regimen months prior to getting pregnant can significantly increase the chances of a healthy pregnancy and having a healthy baby. Regular exercise also plays a role in reaching and maintaining a healthy pre-pregnancy weight, which is important for ensuring a positive outcome for the pregnancy. Exercise also helps to improve mood and boost energy, which can make it more favorable towards having a healthy baby.
According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, pregnant women should continue exercising as long as they are healthy, and the pregnancy is normal. Although light-to-moderate physical activity does not increase the risk of early delivery or miscarriage, be sure to discuss your pre-pregnancy and pregnancy exercise regimen with your obstetrician-gynecologist (ob-gyn) to ensure that the activity is safe for you and your baby.
Pregnant women and women trying to get pregnant should aim for a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise, such as a brisk walk, while pregnant. This can be divided into five 30-minute exercises per week or smaller workouts throughout the day. It is also important to continue exercising after childbirth once your doctor has cleared you for physical activity.
6. Eat Healthy and Increase Water Intake
Preconception nutrition is pivotal to a healthy pregnancy and a healthy baby. It plays a vital role in preparing your body for pregnancy and childbirth. Eating a balanced diet comprised of the right quantities of grain, fruits, dairy, vegetables, and protein before pregnancy enables the body to store and provide proper nutritional support for a growing baby at the right time. Women of childbearing age should eat:
- Foods containing folic acid, such as green leafy vegetables, nuts, a fortified breakfast, and citrus to prevent neural tube defects
- Foods rich in calcium, such as milk and other dairy products to provide nutrients for bone growth for the fetus as well as reduce the risk of osteoporosis in pregnant women
- Foods high in iron, such as meats, poultry, fish, legumes, and leafy green vegetables to replenish the iron depleted from menstruation and provide the fetus with enough iron for growth and development
After the first trimester, a pregnant woman generally needs about 300 extra calories per day to meet the needs of her body and developing baby. These calories should be nutritious, balanced, and healthy. Along with a balanced diet, staying hydrated with 8 to 12 cups (64 to 96 oz) of water before, during, and after pregnancy is important to reduce pregnancy complications. Water helps with digestion as well as forming the amniotic fluid around the fetus. It also helps to circulate nutrients around the body and rid the body of toxic waste material.
7. Stop Smoking, Drinking Alcohol, and Using Certain Drugs
Use of alcohol, cigarettes, and certain drugs during pregnancy can cause serious problems and complications for pregnant women and their babies. Many women may not know they are pregnant until a few days or weeks after conception, at which point the fetus may have been exposed to these substances. Therefore, it is important to stop smoking, using alcohol, and taking certain drugs when you are trying to get pregnant or could potentially be pregnant. Alcohol can cause premature labor, heart defects, miscarriage, stillbirth, birth defects, intellectual disabilities, and other severe complications.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, pregnant women should completely abstain from alcohol since there is no safe limit of alcohol consumption while pregnant. Even one drink per day can cause permanent birth defects and other severe complications collectively known as Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASDs) in babies. Smoking reduces fertility and makes it harder to get pregnant. Smoking during pregnancy can lead to tissue damage in the developing fetus as well preterm delivery. Use of illicit drugs during pregnancy can lead to birth defects and preterm labor. It can also cause permanent cognitive and developmental problems for the baby.
Be sure to discuss your current prescription and non-prescription medications with your healthcare provider prior to pregnancy to make sure they are safe to continue, but do not discontinue any chronic medication or prescribed medication without consulting your doctor.
8. Avoid Contaminants and Toxic Chemicals
One of the things most pregnant women worry about is exposing their bodies and developing babies to toxic substances before and during pregnancy. Exposure to large quantities of certain chemicals such as pesticides, herbicides, mercury, some nail polish, flame retardants, cleaning products, paints, mosquito repellents, and other toxins over a long period of time can be potentially harmful to an unborn baby.
It is a good idea to limit and, where possible, eliminate exposure to these substances before and during pregnancy, and while breastfeeding. These toxins can travel to the bloodstream though the nose or mouth and can pass to the baby through the placenta, leading to increased risk of congenital disorders and other possible health problems.
Fortunately, even though we are surrounded by toxins and chemicals that can potentially be dangerous, we are not exposed to them long enough and in large enough quantities to cause any harm to the body or a developing baby.
9. Educate Yourself and Make a Plan
Part of getting ready for pregnancy is fully educating yourself on the topic and knowing what to expect while pregnant. You should consider making a pregnancy plan, deciding on your birth plan, and even touring birth facilities at the right time. If possible, take a childbirth or parenting class and, where appropriate, talk to your partner about how you plan to parent. Although you cannot predict the future, think about what challenges you might come across during pregnancy and plan for them ahead of time.
The amount of information you would need to know for pregnancy can be overwhelming, especially if it is your first one, but having an open communication with your doctor, and perhaps someone you trust, before, during, and after pregnancy can make the entire process easier. Knowing what you are in for will make it easier to have a more relaxed and stress-free pregnancy, safer delivery, and a healthy baby, as well as an easier postpartum.
10. Get Mentally Healthy
Mental health is a combination of our emotional, social, and psychological wellbeing as well as how we generally cope with life. It is how we think, how we feel, and how we act. To be at our best, we must feel our best. Pregnancy affects sleep and hormones, which in turn affects mood. The combination of physical and emotional changes before and during pregnancy can lead to mental disorders or exacerbate already existing mental health issues.
Although pregnancy can be an exciting time, not every woman feels this way and that is okay. Some women might feel anxious, afraid, worried, and depressed. Being in the best mental health prior to pregnancy can make your pregnancy easier. Although it is normal to feel differently while pregnant, it is also very important to get help as needed.
Talk to someone you trust about your feelings towards pregnancy. Talk to your doctor to determine what treatment options are available to you based on your symptoms before getting pregnant and during pregnancy. Adopt coping mechanisms like breathing exercises, sleeping more, and physical activities that help you adjust to your changing body shape as well as help with labor and delivery. Mental health is equally as important as our physical health. Starting pregnancy off in the best mental health will make pregnancy, labor, delivery, and the postpartum period so much easier.