Getting Ready for Pregnancy

Tips for a Healthy Pregnancy

Many women and couples want to know what they can do to get ready for a safe and healthy pregnancy. Good health may help improve the chances to conceive and lower the risk for pregnancy complications.  The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the March of Dimes have the following health tips for pregnancy. These tips are for general information only and should not replace the advice of a medical provider. 

1

A preconception care appointment

A first step toward a healthy pregnancy

If you are planning for pregnancy, you can schedule a preconception care appointment with a prenatal care provider. A provider will want to discuss any issues about your health or family health history that could affect pregnancy. If you don’t already have a prenatal care provider,  you may want to identify one. 

This could be an obstetrician, but some family practice doctors, nurse practitioners, and midwives also provide prenatal care. To prepare for your appointment, you will want to collect your medical records and some family health history. See Family Matters (in #5) for more details on what to ask about your family health history in your blood relatives.

Here are some things you may discuss at a preconception care appointment:

  • If a woman has certain health conditions before or during pregnancy, these conditions can pose a risk to a baby’s development or a risk for pregnancy complications. Some examples are diabetes, thyroid disease, high blood pressure, and certain sexually transmitted infections. Therefore, some medical screening for those conditions at a preconception check-up can be important to get  ready for a healthy pregnancy. 

  • A prenatal care provider may discuss any medications you are taking and whether they are safe for pregnancy. In some cases, a provider may recommend changing to a different medication during pregnancy. In other cases, it may be more important to stay on a medication to control the underlying health condition. A prenatal care provider can help weigh those options at a preconception care appointment.

  • A good preconception care appointment will also include a review of your vaccinations;  vaccinations are important to avoid infections during a pregnancy, when your immune system is vulnerable. In some cases, your baby could be at risk for the infection, too. 

  • A preconception care appointment may also include information about a healthy diet and exercise routine for pregnancy.  Having a healthy weight, neither overweight or underweight, is important for a healthy pregnancy. Also, each provider may make some suggestions about certain foods to avoid. You can see some general information below (in #2) about a healthy diet, but women should talk with their prenatal care provider about specific recommendations. They will likely also suggest a prenatal vitamin.

2

A healthy diet and exercise routine

A foundation of health when planning for pregnancy

Many couples wonder about fertility and what they need to do to prepare for a healthy pregnancy.  In addition to seeking the advice of a prenatal care provider, maintaining a healthy weight is an important part of fertility and a healthy pregnancy. Many factors affect men and women’s fertility, such as a woman's age, but some studies show an association between infertility and an unhealthy body weight. Being either overweight or underweight can decrease the chances for getting pregnant.

In addition, good nutrition contributes to a healthy pregnancy and healthy baby, and being overweight can contribute to health conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure, which also can pose risks to a pregnancy and the baby’s development.

The Academy for Nutrition and Dietetics recommends the following during pregnancy:

  • Whole grains

  • Fruits (without adding sugar)

  • Vegetables

  • Lean proteins

  • Low-fat or fat-free dairy

  • Healthful fats, such as those from nuts and seeds

Certain foods may need to be avoided during pregnancy. You can ask about these during your preconception care appointment, described in #1.

Vitamins are important for a healthy pregnancy, too.  #4 explains the importance of taking 400 micrograms of folic acid, which can be found in most prenatal vitamins. Prenatal vitamins contain other essential vitamins for a safe pregnancy, like iron and calcium.

Exercise is an important part of maintaining a healthy weight and preparing for a healthy pregnancy, too. Balancing food intake with adequate exercise is essential. The Center for Disease Control recommends that adults exercise throughout the week for a total of 2.5 hours per week.  You can discuss a specific exercise plan at your preconception care appointment.

3

Folic acid

Take 400 micrograms of folic acid every day when getting ready for pregnancy

Good nutrition is an important part of a healthy pregnancy. Folic acid is a form of a B vitamin important for helping the body make new cells. It is found naturally in foods like leafy greens, beans, lentils, broccoli, and more.  Some foods found in the grocery store like breads and pastas have folic acid added, or “fortified”. Folic acid supplements are also available because it can be difficult to get 400 micrograms of folic acid from diet alone. Adults need folic acid to create new cells, and folic acid is critical to a baby as it grows and develops.

Women who are considering pregnancy should have 400 micrograms of folic acid per day to help lower the chance for one type of birth defect, called a neural tube defect, which is among the most common types of birth defects. The neural tube is the very early form of a baby’s brain and spinal cord. The neural tube is forming around 3-4 weeks of pregnancy, so usually a woman does not even know she is pregnant.  Without enough folic acid, there is a higher chance that the tube will not form properly, leaving a small opening that can cause serious nerve and brain damage to the baby. Common types of neural tube defects are called spina bifida or anencephaly.

The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, the Center for Disease Control, and the March of Dimes recommend that women get 400 micrograms of folic acid daily if they are of an age when pregnancy is possible. This way, a woman can ensure she has lowered the chance for neural tube defects should she get pregnant. By the time a woman knows she is pregnant, it may be too late to start taking folic acid to lower her chances for a neural tube defect. (However, taking prenatal vitamins throughout pregnancy is also important for the baby’s development.)

If a woman already has a child with a neural tube defect (spina bifida or anencephaly), she should have a higher dose of 4000 micrograms of folic acid per day. A prenatal care provider or other provider can provide a prescription. If you are unsure about whether you need a higher dose or want personalized information about the chance for birth defects, the Pregnancy Planning Family Screen can help. General information about prenatal and genetic screening is available through Mainstream Genomics’ Free Pregnancy Planning Information Guides.

As mentioned above, certain foods contain a form of folic acid. However, it can be difficult to get enough from diet alone when planning for pregnancy. Multivitamins are available without a prescription, and they usually contain 400 micrograms of folic acid. It is important to check the label to be sure. A prenatal care provider may also prescribe prenatal vitamins, which usually contain folic acid.

Some examples of substances that can cause harm to a developing baby:

Tobacco: Smoking is a major risk factor for lung cancer and heart disease for the smoker herself. For that reason, smoking cessation programs are important for a woman's health at any time. However, tobacco is also known to cause pregnancy complications and newborn health issues such as low birth weight and premature delivery. 

Alcohol: Alcohol during pregnancy can affect how a baby’s brain develops, causing learning disabilities or even severe intellectual impairment. Therefore, women who are trying to get pregnant or are pregnant should avoid alcohol. This may seem extreme because alcohol in moderation can be acceptable outside of pregnancy, but to be sure to have a healthy pregnancy, women should avoid alcohol. 

Certain Medications: Medications are important to a woman’s health, so you should never stop taking a prescription medication without talking to the healthcare provider who prescribed it. However, although many medications are safe during pregnancy, some have a higher chance to cause problems with how the baby’s organs form, resulting in birth defects or learning problems. Others may cause pregnancy complications or pose risk during breastfeeding. It’s best to discuss your medications during your preconception care appointment. Sometimes, there is a different medication that you could take that is safer during pregnancy. In other cases, it may be important to stay on your current medication if the underlying health condition poses more risk to your health or the developing baby than the medication itself.

Other substances: Some substances in the environment can be dangerous to a baby’s development, too. For example, certain chemicals, called organic solvents, while uncommon in everyday life, are used in some work settings. Women who work in those settings should understand before pregnancy what their rights are in the workplace to protect the health of their future baby and pregnancy. 

The good news is that many substances, especially in small amounts or a limited number of times of contact, are unlikely to harm a developing baby. If you want to learn about a specific substance or medication and the possible risk to a pregnancy, the Pregnancy Planning Family Screen asks you about some of these and tells you whether there are any risks. Otherwise, some general tips to help you prepare for a safe pregnancy are:

  • Stop drinking alcohol, smoking, or using certain drugs. 

  • Ask your doctor’s advice for taking prescription medications during pregnancy.

  • Avoid toxic substances like harmful chemicals or outdoor cat or rodent feces.

4

Limit substances that could harm how a baby grows and develops

What to avoid for a healthy pregnancy

Some medications, drugs, or other substances can affect how a baby develops. The reason is that some substances are able to cross the placenta, the membrane surrounding the developing fetus in the uterus, to reach the baby. The baby’s organ systems are developing during pregnancy, and some substances will disrupt normal formation. Avoiding certain substances can help ensure a healthy pregnancy and healthy baby. When you are planning for pregnancy, it is a good idea to talk with a prenatal care provider about any health conditions and medications and begin to avoid substances that could cause harm to a fetus should you get pregnant.

5

Family matters

Know your family history when planning for pregnancy

For example, if a parent-to-be has a family member with a childhood condition, such as a birth defect or severe learning problem, he or she could have a higher chance of passing something similar to a child. Collecting detailed family history on both parents can better inform couples regarding the chances for an inherited condition in a future child.

Knowing your family health history can help you protect your future family.  Collecting family history involves asking questions about a person’s health and their family. Most people have family members with different health issues, some of which can be inherited. Most of these conditions would not be detected by standard genetic testing done by fertility clinics or prenatal care providers.

To gather your family health history, you will want to ask  about your family members who are related to you by blood.  Ask about the conditions listed below in parents, siblings, nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and cousins. Record the way the person is related to you. (You don’t have to share information about people who are related only by marriage or were adopted into the family.) Also record the age they first experienced symptoms or were diagnosed with the condition. If they are no longer living, find out at what age they passed away and the causes of death. Any details family members can provide on the names of their specific conditions can be very helpful.

  • Physical birth defects such as heart defects or spina bifida

  • Severe learning problems, autism, or delays in walking or talking

  • Nerve or muscle problems

  • Blood problem, like a bleeding disorder or severe anemia

  • Growth problem, like unusually tall or short height

  • Disabilities like blindness or deafness

  • Deaths of children or young adults

  • Genetic testing for medical conditions

  • Known inherited conditions in the family

The Pregnancy Planning Family Screen will ask you about your health and family, and our genetics experts will create a Personalized Screening Plan to suggest any specialized genetic screening that might be important for you to consider. Knowing genetic information in advance gives parents-to-be more time and more options. We can help coordinate any testing you want to pursue, or you can ask your provider to help with testing. Knowing genetic information in advance gives parents-to-be more time and more options.

You may wonder whether your prenatal care provider can help you consider your family health history. Studies show that genetics experts can provide more detailed information about genetic risk and testing. Prenatal care providers want what is best for their patients, but genetics is changing very fast and it can be hard to keep up. In fact, about 10% of women or couples have a risk to their baby that was not found through standard prenatal care. 

One additional step you could consider as you plan for pregnancy is genetic testing. The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG) supports a special type of genetic testing called carrier testing during or prior to pregnancy. 

6

Domestic violence

Whether planning for pregnancy or not, get help if you experience violence

Violence at any time in life is a serious matter, and pregnancy is no exception. If you experience violence, find a safe place like with a trusted friend or family member and contact your local police department, your health professional, or the National Domestic Violence Hotline: (800) 799-SAFE (7233) or (800) 787-3224 TTY Doing so will help protect you and your future family from more violence.

7

Take care of you

Protect your mental health to prepare for pregnancy

Pregnancy and parenting can be very stressful. Going through ups and downs and experiencing feelings of anxiety or sadness is normal for anyone thinking about pregnancy. Overall mental health is very important for coping with those ups and downs. If you experience signs or symptoms of a mental health disorder, contact your healthcare provider. Therapy can include counseling and sometimes medications. Getting good support before pregnancy helps protect you and your family and prepare for a healthy pregnancy.

Want to get started with collecting your family health history

Check out our Pregnancy Planning Family Screen

Want to learn more about genetic screening and testing?

Check out our other Free Information Guides

Other Helpful Links:

Fertility and Diet (Academy for Nutrition and Dietetics)

Foods that Affect Fertility (Academy for Nutrition and Dietetics)

Eating Right During Pregnancy (Academy for Nutrition and Dietetics)

Planning for Pregnancy (Center for Disease Control)

Getting Ready for Pregnancy: Preconception Health (March of Dimes)

Substances During Pregnancy (MotherToBaby)

 

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