You may think that the three trimesters of pregnancy are the most crucial time to focus on your health and lifestyle. But, growing research shows that preparing your body for pregnancy with healthy lifestyle changes before conception may be the key. There’s evidence that shows that preconception care strongly influences pregnancy outcomes. Women who prepare for pregnancy by modifying their health, environmental, and lifestyle issues can significantly improve their chances of a healthy pregnancy.
Maura Shirey, RN, CPFE, and owner of Bodies for Birth says that if you have the opportunity to prepare your body during preconception, then you’ll be able to build a strong foundation for navigating the challenges of pregnancy. She encourages her clients to establish the building blocks of health prior to pregnancy. This way they’ll be prepared once they do conceive. She recommends they include a regular exercise program, optimal nutrition, and stress-reducing practices to prepare for pregnancy.
Ideally, give yourself six to twelve months to prepare for pregnancy. This applies especially to women who need to lose weight or stop smoking. Create a timeline that incorporates the following preconception checklist to get a head start on building your best foundation for a healthy pregnancy.
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Checking in with your healthcare provider before conception is very important. It plays an integral role in identifying any conditions that may affect your ability to conceive or have a healthy pregnancy. Past pregnancy complications (such as preeclampsia/eclampsia, gestational diabetes, Rh incompatibility, and postpartum hemorrhage) should be discussed with your healthcare provider.
Your doctor should review all medications that you’re taking. Any medication, whether over the counter, prescribed, or supplement based has the potential to affect the health of your pregnancy. It’s important to go over all medications and supplements that you take with your healthcare provider to determine whether or not they may be harmful to a fetus.
As you prepare for pregnancy, you and your doctor should discuss your family history to determine whether there are genetic conditions that could affect your child. Genetic counseling may be needed if you have a family history of genetic-related diseases. Preconception is a perfect time to review your vaccination history to make sure that you’re up to date on your varicella (aka chickenpox, if you’ve never had the disease) measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccines, as well as other vaccines that your doctor may recommend.
Many medical conditions, such as diabetes, asthma, thyroid disease, sexually transmitted diseases, or cardiac conditions can affect pregnancy. The best way to reduce risk during pregnancy is by working with your healthcare provider to control any medical conditions with proper treatment before you prepare for pregnancy.
Your preconception diet plays an influential role in the early development of your baby, once you become pregnant. This is the time to make healthy changes in your diet. Include plenty of vegetables, fruits, lean protein, and complex carbohydrates. Experts recommend upping your folate (a water-soluble B vitamin) intake three months before trying to have a baby. So eat plenty of folate-rich leafy vegetables, edamame, broccoli, asparagus, beans, citrus fruits, whole grains, and folate-enriched foods daily.
You may want to switch to all organic foods to avoid foodborne exposure to pesticides and antibiotics. If you’re unable to go completely organic, at least try to choose organic when shopping for produce (listed below) that the Environmental Working Group considers to be the most highly contaminated with pesticides.
- Sweet bell peppers
- Imported nectarines
- Cherry tomatoes
- Imported snap peas
Most women aren’t aware that being outside of their ideal weight range can affect fertility and cause complications during pregnancy. Excessive weight is associated with a higher risk of gestational diabetes, high blood pressure, preeclampsia, and preterm birth. Pregnant women with gestational diabetes or obesity have a higher chance of having a larger-than-average baby. This can cause birth injury or need for cesarean delivery.
Losing excess weight prior to pregnancy is one of the best ways to prepare for pregnancy. If you are having trouble losing weight, ask for a referral to a registered dietician. An expert can help you determine the optimal diet and calories needed to reach your goal weight.
Exercise is the other important part of the weight loss duo. Make sure that you’re doing something active every day. Women who are underweight are at increased risk of having a low-birth-weight baby or preterm birth. If you’re underweight, consider talking with a dietician about how to beef up your diet with healthy, higher calorie choices.
Not all supplements are safe to take during pregnancy. Dietary supplements are unregulated and may contain ingredients that can adversely affect you and your baby. Talk with your healthcare provider about all supplements (including teas, tinctures, or other products) that you consume to ensure that they’re safe to ingest during pregnancy.
One supplement that’s essential during preconception and pregnancy is folic acid. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends that women start supplementing with folic acid daily at least one month before conception. Choose a prenatal multivitamin that contains the 400-600 microgram needed to help prevent the risk of fetal birth defects of the brain and spine. Also, check that your prenatal vitamin includes iron so that your body’s iron store is at an optimal level once you become pregnant.
Smoking (tobacco or cannabis), drinking alcohol, and using illicit drugs during pregnancy carry significant risks to the growth and development of your fetus. These include low birth weight, fetal alcohol syndrome, intrauterine growth restriction, and prematurity. If you can’t quit, seek out a medical professional who can provide the tools to help you kick the habit. The sooner you stop prior to pregnancy, the better your chances of avoiding complications related to these substances.
Prepregnancy is the perfect time to do a check on the safety of your home and workplace. At home, avoid using household cleaning chemicals (there are lots of effective green alternatives). Additionally, avoid exposure to pesticides, garden and lawn chemicals, or other toxic substances. If you may be exposed to toxic substances, radiation, or solvents in your workplace, talk with your supervisor about ways to prevent exposure during your pregnancy.
Shirey encourages all women who are contemplating pregnancy to consider the importance of preconception health. She adds, “There’s a ripple effect that starts with healthy habits before conceiving, leading to a healthy and strong pregnancy and postpartum recovery.”
Catherine Cram is an exercise physiologist and a leading expert in the field of maternal fitness. Her consulting company, “Prenatal and Postpartum Fitness” specializes in providing the most current maternal exercise information and continuing education courses to health and fitness professionals.