By Beth Kiernan, MPH
Tanya called in on a Monday morning. “I’m getting married in a few months and we want to start trying to get pregnant right away. What should I be doing now to have the best chance of a healthy baby?”
Preconception health and pregnancy planning present a terrific opportunity to assess a wide range of factors that can give your baby the best start. This blog will outline the things to consider, as I relayed to Tanya:
Your Personal Health
Are you generally healthy? If you already get headaches or have acid reflux, know that pregnancy can make these more frequent. Ask your doctor if the way you treat these common conditions should change once you are pregnant. Ask about your current exercise routine and if you need to alter it during pregnancy. Get checked for sexually transmitted infections because some may not show symptoms. Also discuss your medications – some should be stopped before you start trying to conceive, such as Valproic acid, leflunomide (e.g. Arava®), teriflunomide (Aubagio®), methotrexate, and isotretinoin (e.g. Accutane®) to name just a few. For others, you’ll want to weigh the risks vs. the benefits with your health provider before you conceive. Talk with your doctors now to make a plan.
Do you drink caffeinated coffee, tea, or soda? What about energy drinks, protein powders, or Kombucha? MotherToBaby’s fact sheet on caffeine may put your mind at ease and encourage you to think about all your beverage options.
Is your weight a concern? One of the best things you can do before conception is to get to a healthy weight. Women who are overweight or obese have increased risks for miscarriage, birth defects, gestational diabetes, high blood pressure and preeclampsia, and unplanned cesarean birth. Now is a good time to meet with a nutritionist or go on a sensible diet to get to a healthy weight in anticipation of pregnancy. Once you are pregnant, continue to watch what you eat but don’t try to lose weight. Weight gain is inevitable during pregnancy but guidelines from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (or ACOG, the leading professional society for OB/GYNs) advise women to gain anywhere from 11-40 pounds, depending on your pre-pregnancy weight. It’s a myth that you need to “eat for two,” so don’t set yourself up for postpartum weight gain by eating more than you should. After delivery of an average 7-8 lb. baby, you may lose 2 lbs. in amniotic fluid, 1.5 lbs. of placenta, 5-7 lbs. in blood volume, and 2 lbs. as the uterus returns to its normal size. That could still leave you with 10 pounds of excess weight, or more if you gained more weight during the pregnancy. Some women never take off those extra pounds, and their weight creeps up with successive pregnancies and age, which can lead to pregnancy complications and chronic health problems later on. See our exercise fact sheet for more information.
Chronic Health Conditions
Do you have chronic health conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, migraines, asthma, high cholesterol, heart conditions, varicose veins, or anemia? Do you have an autoimmune disease like Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, multiple sclerosis, psoriasis or psoriatic arthritis? Meet with your obstetrician for a “preconception” appointment to discuss how a pregnancy might impact your health, and how your health might affect a future pregnancy. Your specialist can provide an important opinion too. A maternal-fetal medicine specialist (MFM) is a doctor who specializes in high-risk pregnancies, and consulting with a MFM once you are pregnant could help you learn how to optimize your and your baby’s health.
What about your mental health? If you have a history of anxiety or depression, ADHD or other conditions, ask your psychiatrist and OB about treatment, and don’t make changes before you do. Many medications can be continued during pregnancy and while breastfeeding. In fact, mental health is incredibly important – for example, when a woman doesn’t treat her mood disorder or inadequately treats it, some studies suggest risks for miscarriage, premature birth, low birth weight, and preeclampsia. Talk therapy is vitally important too. And if you struggle with mental health concerns during the pregnancy, you are at risk for postpartum depression. Let’s face it – pregnancy and caring for a new baby is stressful, so now is the time to marshal your helpers – friends, relatives, therapists and doctors – to ensure you have enough support. Your obstetrician should ask about mental health but if not, speak up. Your doctor can be your ally here, helping you get treatment and addressing concerns related to pregnancy and postpartum mental health. And MotherToBaby can give you an overview of the research related to any prescriptions you might choose to take.
Have you seen a dentist lately? Oral health can impact a pregnancy, meaning that if you have swollen or bleeding gums, a toothache or an infection, it can increase risks to the pregnancy. If you need to have a dental x-ray, take antibiotics, or have local anesthesia for a dental procedure, these are generally acceptable during pregnancy, but best to complete before you get pregnant. Contact MotherToBaby for more details.
Where do you work? MotherToBaby can give you information to minimize exposures in a veterinarian office, dry cleaners, salon, laboratory/hospital, imaging center, pest control service, or other business. Your occupational safety department can recommend personal protective equipment (PPE) and tell you about ventilation that may be in place to ensure workplace safety. Safety data sheets (SDS) give an overview of chemicals used in industry and are available online or at work.
Read up on food safety and learn how to minimize your exposure to foods that have commonly been associated with foodborne illness such as E. coli or listeria. Get in the habit of washing your fresh fruits and vegetables well. Check out other blogs on our website too.
Vitamins and Supplements
Have you started taking a prenatal vitamin? Are you getting enough folic acid? ACOG recommends that women take at least 400 mcg of folic acid before getting pregnant and at least 600-800 mcg/day once they are pregnant. This can help prevent birth defects of the brain and spinal cord. Call MotherToBaby if you want to learn the recommended daily intake for specific vitamins or minerals. In general, taking more than what is recommended is not advisable – we haven’t studied how mega-doses of vitamins may impact a pregnancy. Other supplements beyond taking a prenatal vitamin are not advisable either – the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t supervise their manufacturing plants and past surveys have shown some supplements actually contain contaminants. Furthermore, we’ve seen instances where the label didn’t match the contents of the bottle and could cause ill effects. Pregnant and breastfeeding women should avoid herbal supplements unless specifically recommended by your doctor.
Do you smoke cigarettes? Do you use cannabis for medicinal or recreational purposes? Do you drink alcohol? Recent research has demonstrated that marijuana use very early in pregnancy causes changes in brain development, which could result in behavioral or learning challenges we see later in the child’s life. Cigarettes increase risks for pregnancy loss, among other things. And alcohol is known to cause a variety of birth defects known as fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD). We don’t believe that there is a “safe” amount of alcohol which when consumed doesn’t cause issues for a developing child. Now is the time to quit smoking, drinking, and using cannabis – your baby will be heathier for it. MotherToBaby can provide resources, or check with your doctor.
Are you up to date on all your vaccines? Did you get a flu shot this past season? You don’t want a vaccine-preventable illness to have an impact on your pregnancy. Flu infection can increase risks for more severe symptoms, longer-lasting illness, pregnancy loss and premature delivery, which can have a lifelong impact on your baby. Flu vaccine helps prevent infection. Another benefit to vaccinating during pregnancy? Studies show the protection extends to your baby, and gives them a little extra immunity from birth until they can receive vaccines. Also good to know: some vaccines can be given and are recommended during pregnancy, like a flu shot or TDAP, but others are best given before you conceive to avoid a small risk of spreading the illness to the fetus (e.g. the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine, as well as the Varicella (chicken pox) vaccine) – so try to get these done at least a month before trying to conceive. Check your medical records to see the last time you received any of these vaccinations. If you don’t know if you were previously vaccinated, your doctor can draw blood to check if you have immunity.
Do you have a cat? There is some concern in pregnancy about an infection called toxoplasmosis, which is caused by a parasite that can be found in cat feces. Read our blog for more info on what you can do to prevent this infection if you have a fur baby at home: https://mothertobaby.org/baby-blog/the-cat-can-stay-debunking-pregnancy-myths-about-toxoplasmosis-2/
Do your upcoming travel plans involve travel to a warm tropical place? Check out our Zika fact sheet to learn more before you book nonrefundable tickets. In general, women will want to wait to try to conceive for eight weeks from the time of your return home; the wait time is three months if your male partner travels with you. COVID-19 is also spreading around the globe and our fact sheet can give you the latest information on whether and how it could affect a pregnancy.
Finally, your obstetrician or primary care doctor would be glad to see you for a Preconception consultation. Make an appointment to discuss your personal history and health. It’s a great way to get you and your baby off to the best start.
Beth Kiernan, MPH, is a Teratogen Information Specialist with MotherToBaby Pregnancy Studies, a non-profit that conducts observational research about exposures in pregnancy and provides information to healthcare providers and the general public on medications and more during pregnancy and breastfeeding. She is based at the University of California, San Diego, and is the married mother of four.
MotherToBaby is a service of the Organization of Teratology Information Specialists (OTIS), suggested resources by many agencies including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). If you have questions about exposures during pregnancy and breastfeeding, please call MotherToBaby toll-FREE at 866-626-6847 or try out MotherToBaby’s new text information service by texting questions to (855) 999-3525. You can also visit MotherToBaby.org to browse a library of fact sheets about dozens of viruses, medications, vaccines, alcohol, diseases, or other exposures during pregnancy and breastfeeding or connect with all of our resources by downloading the new MotherToBaby free app, available on Android and iOS markets.