‘The most important time in a pregnancy is the first four to eight weeks, when most of a foetus’s organs are being formed,’ says Sessions Cole, director of neurology and paediatrics at Washington University School of Medicine in the US. ‘To wait to stop smoking or drinking, taking some prescription medicines or adding nutrients to your diet until you find out you’re pregnant means you’re weeks – or months – late.’
If you’re planning to have a baby, getting ready begins well before you’re pregnant. Here’s how...
The pre-conception healthcare visit
Ask questions about your medical history and find out which tests are recommended. (Especially important if you have any major health problems or have had problems with a previous pregnancy.)
If you have diabetes, make sure it is being treated. Women with insulin-dependent diabetes have a higher risk of miscarriage or having a baby with a birth defect. But if blood sugar is well controlled before and during pregnancy, the chances for delivering a healthy baby are excellent.
If you haven’t had rubella (German measles), get vaccinated at least three months before you try to fall pregnant (once you’ve conceived, it’s too late). Rubella contracted during pregnancy can cause birth defects. And avoid eating undercooked meat or handling cat litter, both of which can cause toxoplasmosis, a parasitic infection that can seriously affect the foetus.
Stopping birth control
Birth-control pills won’t cause defects, no matter how close to conception you stop using them. An IUD can be harmful, though; consult your doctor if you suspect you’re pregnant.
What you eat before conception and during the first few weeks of pregnancy will be used for your baby’s early development, when the major organs are formed.
Mary-Ann says it’s essential to understand the role of your endocrine system – it orchestrates the whole process, from fertilisation to conception and from pregnancy to birth. ‘Everything you eat will have a positive or negative effect,’ she explains.
Foods that can impact negatively on your endocrine system include refined products (sugar, alcohol, artificial sweeteners), caffeine, excess animal fat and too much salt. Foods that will benefit you are avocados, raw nuts and seeds, cold-pressed vegetable oils, olives and sweetcorn (which all contain essential fatty acids), as well as raw fruit and vegetables (the more the merrier) and concentrated carbohydrates (like potatoes, brown rice, maize and grains). Mary-Ann is a firm believer in the powers of barley green. It’s important to remember that this is not the time for a slimming or low-kilojoule diet!
Boosting your diet
There are all sorts of vitamins and minerals you need to take in when you want to conceive or once you’re pregnant. Aside from supplements (a subject over which there’s still a great deal of debate), you can increase the minerals in your diet by adding in healthy fruit and vegetables. Folic acid is found in oranges and other citrus fruits, leafy dark-green vegetables, beans, peas and most berries. Dairy foods are a source of calcium, but if you can’t eat dairy products, there’s loads of the stuff in spinach, broccoli and nuts. Iron’s found in liver, red meat, chickpeas (hummus), lentils, pumpkin seeds, whole-grain products, nuts, caviar and leafy vegetables.
If you’re already an exercise person, keep it up. Regular exercise helps you get fit for conception and prepares you for the demands of pregnancy. If you’re not the exercise type, try brisk walking, cycling or swimming.
Cutting down on stress
Stress is a major factor in infertility. You and your partner could compromise the conception process if you don’t take the necessary steps to alleviate it.
- Weight: Being seriously overweight or underweight can contribute to birth defects such as cleft palate and diabetes.
- Smoking: Smoking is associated with premature births and low birth weights, increased risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) and asthma.
- Alcohol: Some harmful substances in alcohol are stored in body fat and can take months to leave your body. Researchers have not been able to determine a safe level for alcohol consumption for pregnant women, so it’s best to avoid alcohol when trying to conceive, during pregnancy or when breast-feeding.
- Prescription medicines: Some medications might have to be stopped or changed. Abnormalities such as cleft lip and palate, heart defects and limb abnormalities are associated with certain prescription medicines.
- Vitamins and minerals: Speak to a dietician or nutritionist about taking vitamins and minerals, including folic acid and calcium.
- Immunity: Have you had rubella (German measles) or smallpox, or have you been vaccinated against them? A blood test will quickly clarify this.
- Blood types: If you and your partner’s blood types aren’t compatible, your child might have anaemia or other complications at birth. RH disease (the result of genetic incompatibility) can easily be treated during pregnancy.
- Genes: Share your own health history and your partner’s with your doctor. Ask about any known birth defects or medical problems. Find out if there’s a history of miscarriages, babies with low birth weights, premature deliveries or a history of mental retardation or slow development after birth.
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