Planning a baby – get your body off to a healthy start
Whether you are trying to conceive your first baby or planning to expand your family taking a look at your nutrition and lifestyle is one of the most important first steps you can take. With one in six couples struggling with sub-fertility this is one way in which you can improve your chances of conception as well as optimising your body’s condition in order to carry a healthy pregnancy.
While we often associate antenatal care with trips to the GP or hospital once baby is on the way, doctors encourage women to attend for a pre-conceptual check-up that may highlight any issues relating to your own particular situation as well as being well positioned to offer general health advice on where to start on the route to parenthood.
Women with pre-existing medical conditions such as thyroid problems, epilepsy, depression and diabetes are likely to be aware of the importance of medical advice around the time of contraception and pregnancy. Some of the medications required for these conditions can be harmful to the developing foetus and some of the conditions themselves may impact fertility if care is not optimised.
Being overweight can impact your fertility & pregnancy
For some women it may take time for their cycle to regulate after ceasing hormonal contraception – this is normal, however fertility can also return immediately so it is important to only stop once ready, unless planning to use barrier contraception in interim. Women do not routinely need any blood tests before conception. It is advised that if a couple are trying to conceive for more than a year or more than 6 months over the age of 35 it may be worth having a medical check up to assess fertility. Remember both partners have a role to play and a male factor is present in at least 50% of couples with sub-fertility. Maintaining a healthy weight going into a pregnancy is also important for the health of both mother and baby. Overweight and obese women are at greater risk of pregnancy complications including development of gestational diabetes and high blood pressure as well as having higher Caesarean section rates and delivery complications. The magic number for pregnancy and weight seems to be a BMI (body mass index) of 20 – 24. Below this there is a risk of irregular or absent ovulation. For women who struggle with being overweight, research indicates that a weight loss of as little as 5%-10% of current weight can dramatically improve ovulation and pregnancy rates. Exercise, at a rate of at least 30 minutes a day plays a vital role in helping maintain a healthy weight and has been shown to improve fertility. Only elite athletes and those whose training is maintaining a BMI below 20 may need to consider the impact of this on their body’s preparedness for pregnancy.
Good pre-pregnancy foods
A diet rich in high quality carbohydrates (wholegrain bread, rice and pasta) and fibre, fresh fruit and vegetables and plant proteins such as beans, nuts and seeds has been shown in research to result in greater fertility. At least one portion a day of whole fat yogurt, cheese or milk (or even ice cream) has surprisingly been shown to improve ovulation and fertility compared with low fat versions. This is best advised as a temporary switch of habit! Folic acid should be commenced ideally 3 months prior to conception and continued until at least 14th week of pregnancy. In general a processed, fast food diet, high in sugary, and white starch carbohydrates will tend to increase weight, diabetes risk and sub-fertility. Trans-fats, found in margarines and deep fried foods have been shown to reduce ovulation at a relatively low intake of 4 grams/day.
Stopping bad habits
Smoking cessation may seem obvious but up to 18% of Irish women smoke at some stage during pregnancy, with 13% smoking right through – a condition that has been proven to increase the risk of preterm delivery and low birth weight babies as well as now being linked with childhood behavioural problems in later years.
Alcohol – As it may take the average couple 6 months to a year to conceive it may seem impractical to omit alcohol altogether. However it is a good time to review your intake. The maximum safe weekly alcohol limit for women is considered to be 11 units – that is just over one bottle of wine per week. Many of us consider that level to be normal social drinking. At the stage of life where a pregnancy is being considered cutting back on alcohol can both improve your chances of conception but most importantly as no safe limit for alcohol is known in pregnancy it is desirable for a healthy pregnancy outcome.
Diet is important before, during and after pregnancy
Maintaining a healthy weight, smoking cessation and reduction in alcohol consumption have all been shown to improve male fertility. There is much research into the use of various anti-oxidents in relation to improving sperm quality in men with sub-fertility. Studies have shown improvements with use of multivitamin / anti-oxidant products including Zinc, selenium, Vitamin E amongst other anti- oxidents in the production of healthy sperm.
Those who have had narrowly spaced pregnancies or have been breastfeeding may want to pay particular attention to their weight and diet to ensure that the are taking in adequate supplies of essential nutrients such as Iron, Folic acid, calcium, omega 3 fatty acids and which can easily be depleted with the demands that this time puts on the body.
Finally relax – while the excitement of planning a pregnancy or the strains of sub-fertility may make this seem impossible, it has been proven that relaxation improves the chance of conception so whether this is getting out for a walk, a yoga class, reflexology or just a good catch up with friends taking time in your schedule to let mind and body rest may be the key to success you have been looking for.