Planning for a pregnancy and a new baby can be both exciting and a little frightening. There is so much to think about and so much to do. We’re here to help make pregnancy planning a little easier so you can worry less about the details and focus on a healthy, happy pregnancy.
There are things you can do and steps you can take even before you get pregnant to help you reduce the risks of pregnancy to both your baby and yourself. Being as healthy as you can be before you get pregnant is almost as important as maintaining a healthy lifestyle during pregnancy.
The first few weeks of pregnancy are crucial in a child's development. However, many women don't realize they're pregnant until several weeks after conception. Planning ahead and taking care of yourself before you become pregnant is one of the best things you can do for yourself and your baby.
A pre-pregnancy examination (often called pre-conception care) can help you prepare for your pregnancy. A doctor, nurse practitioner or midwife can perform this exam for you, which may include:
- Gathering your family medical history. Your health care provider will assess both maternal and paternal medical history to help determine if there is a family history of certain medical conditions, like high blood pressure, diabetes and intellectual disability.
- Performing genetic testing. Genetic testing isn’t required, but you can choose to be assessed for several potential genetic disorders, including sickle cell anemia (a serious blood disorder that primarily occurs in African-Americans) and Tay-Sachs disease (a nerve breakdown disorder marked by progressive intellectual and developmental disabilities that primarily occurs in individuals of Eastern European Jewish origin).
- Taking a personal medical history. Assessing your personal medical history will determine if there is anything the doctor needs to know. Some of those things include:
- medical conditions that may require special care during pregnancy — such as epilepsy, diabetes, high blood pressure, anemia and allergies
- previous surgeries
- past pregnancies
- Assessing vaccination status. Knowing your current vaccination status will help your doctor plan for giving any necessary vaccines. There are certain preventable diseases that can cause problems during pregnancy. One of those is rubella (German measles). If you contract this disease during pregnancy, the risk of miscarriage and birth defects increases. If you’re not immune, your provider can give you a vaccine at least one month before you plan to get pregnant, which should provide you immunity and protect your baby. Since many diseases that were once almost eradicated have started to re-appear, having updated vaccines is important.
- Screening for infection. An infection screening will determine if you have a sexually transmitted infection or urinary tract infection that could be harmful to your baby and to you. Your provider will also want to know whether you are symptomatic or have risk factors for certain infections.
Other important steps
There are a number of things you can do to reduce the risk of complications and increase the chances for a healthy pregnancy and delivery.
- Quit smoking. If you're a smoker, stop smoking now. Studies have shown that babies born to mothers who smoke tend to be born prematurely, be lower in birth weight, and be more likely to die of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). In addition, women with exposure to secondhand smoke are more likely to have low-birth-weight babies. There may also be dangers from third-hand smoke, which includes the chemicals, particles and gases of tobacco that are left on hair, clothing and furnishings.
- Eat a proper diet. Eating a balanced diet before and during pregnancy isn't only good for your overall health — it’s essential for nourishing your baby.
- Exercise and get to a healthy weight. It's important to exercise regularly and maintain a proper weight before and during pregnancy. Women who are overweight may experience medical problems, such as high blood pressure and diabetes. Women who are underweight may have babies with low birth weight.
- Medically manage any pre-existing conditions. Before getting pregnant, take control of any current or preexisting medical problems, such as diabetes or high blood pressure. Talk with your health care provider about steps you can take to make sure you’re as healthy as possible before getting pregnant.
- Help prevent birth defects. There are steps you can take to reduce the chance of your child having birth defects. For example:
- Take 400 micrograms (0.4 mg) of folic acid each day. Folic acid can help reduce the risk of birth defects of the brain and spinal cord (also called neural tube defects). Folic acid is found in some green leafy vegetables, nuts, beans, citrus fruits, fortified breakfast cereals, and in some vitamin supplements, but you can purchase folic acid capsules at your pharmacy.
- Avoid exposure to alcohol and drugs during pregnancy. In addition, be sure to inform your health care provider of any medications you're currently taking, even over-the-counter medications, vitamins, and supplements, because anything you take may have adverse effects on your developing baby.
- Limit exposure to harmful substances. You should avoid exposure to toxic and chemical substances (like lead and pesticides) and radiation (like X-rays). Exposure to high levels of some types of radiation and some chemical and toxic substances may adversely affect your developing baby.
- Avoid infection. You should avoid the ingestion of undercooked meat and raw eggs. In addition, you should avoid all contact and exposure to cat feces and cat litter, which may contain a parasite called Toxoplasma gondii that causes an infection called toxoplasmosis. Toxoplasmosis can cause a serious illness in, or death of, the fetus. You can reduce your risk of infection by avoiding all potential sources of the infection. A blood test before or during pregnancy can determine if you have been exposed to the Toxoplasma gondii parasite.
- Take prenatal vitamins. Begin taking a prenatal vitamin daily, prescribed by your health care provider, to make certain that your body gets all the necessary nutrients and vitamins needed to nourish a healthy baby. Some pharmacies offer prenatal vitamins at no cost to pregnant women.
- Identify domestic violence. Women who are abused before pregnancy may be at risk for increased abuse during pregnancy. Your health care provider can help you find community, social and legal resources to help you deal with domestic violence.