Good and early prenatal care helps keep you and your baby healthy. The first, and most important, aspect of pregnancy health is to see a physician right away and continue to get regular prenatal medical care.
The Office of Women's Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that babies of mothers who do not get prenatal care are three times more likely to have low birth weight, and five times more likely to die.
Arming yourself with the information necessary to properly take care of yourself and your baby, is the best first step in parenting that you can take.
Food & Nutrition
Obviously, eating healthy while pregnant is vital for your baby's growth and development. The food you eat is your baby's main source of protein, and your need for certain vitamins and minerals increases while pregnant.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture warns that supplements cannot replace the vitamins and minerals found in a healthy diet, that are needed for you and your baby.
Prenatal vitamins are usually recommended for most women, particularly 400-800 micrograms of folic acid; you should ask your doctor about this. It should also go without saying that pregnant women should not drink alcohol; even moderate consumption can cause developmental and behavioral problems.
Start with the basics, but it's also good to know what foods to avoid and what the healthiest choices are. The following guidelines from the Mayo Clinic are geared toward a 25-year-old pregnant women of average weight, who gets 30-60 minutes of exercise per day. For older, overweight or sedentary women, nutritional needs might differ.
Grains provide essential carbohydrates for energy, as well as fiber, iron and other vitamins and minerals. Six to ten ounces of fortified bread and cereal, especially those made with whole grains, are a good contribution to your daily diet. Fruits and vegetables are also critical components, particularly dark green vegetables.
It's very important to wash all fruits and vegetables thoroughly before cooking or eating. The daily recommended serving is five to six cups per day; fruit juice counts in that, but watch the sugar content.
Protein in meat, eggs, beans and nuts is crucial, from six to seven ounces per day. That said, it's important that pregnant women avoid any undercooked or rare meat and poultry. All meat should be fully cooked, including processed deli meat and hot dogs.
These should be cooked until they are steaming hot, if eaten at all. Other foods to stay away from are refrigerated meat spreads and pate (canned is all right), and raw poultry that has been pre-stuffed.
When it comes to diary, a few rules of thumb should serve pregnant women well. Low-fat dairy products such as skim milk, mozzarella cheese, yogurt and cottage cheese can be a healthy contribution to your diet. Pregnant women should get three cups of dairy per day, and you can get creative.
If you're having trouble getting in enough dairy, or digesting it, try calcium-fortified orange juice.
Unpasteurized products are a big no-no, including milk, eggs, juice and cheeses that are not pasteurized. Unless soft cheeses such as brie, feta, camembert, blue cheese and Mexican quasi fresco are clearly labeled as pasteurized, do not eat them.
Raw eggs especially can be contaminated with harmful salmonella, so all eggs should be cooked until firm and pregnant women should avoid anything made with raw or undercooked eggs, such as Caesar salad dressing, Hollandaise sauce and eggnog.
While seafood can be a great source of protein and important omega-3 fatty acids, not all of it is good for pregnant women and their babies. Many fish and shellfish contain levels of mercury that are far too high and could potentially damage a baby's developing nervous system.
According to the Mayo Clinic, a good overall rule of thumb is that the bigger and older the fish, the more mercury it's likely to contain, and therefore the more you should avoid it.
Specific fish species to stay away from include swordfish, shark, king mackerel and tilefish. Pregnant women should also avoid any raw or undercooked seafood, particularly oysters and clams, as well as refrigerated smoked seafood such as salmon or lox.
Canned seafood in limited quantities (up to 12 ounces per week) is safe, including canned light or albacore tuna, shrimp, crab, salmon, cod and tilapia.
Fitness & Exercise
During your average day, especially when you're at work, remember to take short, frequent breaks where you can get up and move around. Taking short reclining rests with your feet propped up can also feel great for pregnant women.
For more women with a normal, healthy pregnancy, keeping up your fitness routine is fine during pregnancy. Women who exercise regularly during their pregnancies have fewer complications of gestational diabetes, are more likely to go into labor by their due date, are more likely to have an uncomplicated vaginal delivery and are more likely to have an easier recovery.
Obstetrician Jennifer Mushtaler, MD, recommends continuing your fitness regimen at about 80 percent of your maximum heart rate while pregnant, to stay safely in a healthy aerobic zone.
Talk to your doctor about your regimen; certain exercises may need to be modified, but physical activity is good for you and the baby, and helps boost your energy level. Even taking a walk every day can help tremendously, and you might want to look into special pre-natal exercise classes.
Mushtaler says that for pregnant women beginning a workout routine, they should begin very moderately and build from there. “My recommendation is 30 minutes a day, five days a week. I do not recommend training in the anaerobic zone, as that has been shown to compromise blood flow to the baby."
One thing that most pregnant women experience during some part of their pregnancy is fatigue, and often it may be far more extreme than fatigue you've experienced at other times in your life. Make sure you are getting enough sleep; aim for seven to nine hours each night.
Into the later months, when discomfort often increases, try sleeping on your side and placing pillows between your legs or under your belly and against your back.
Mushtaler recommends alternating warm and cool packs to the lower back to deal with back pain, and gently stretching the back by getting on your hands and knees, then rounding your back slightly and holding for ten seconds.
Other Prenatal Health Recommendations
- Ask your doctor before starting or stopping any medicines, even herbal or over-the-counter products.
- Avoid x-rays.
- If you must have dental or diagnostic work, be sure to tell the practitioners that you are pregnant.
- Get a flu shot.
- Don't use hot tubs or saunas, and make sure your bath water isn't overly hot.
- Childbirth education classes are recommended, as is plenty of reading to gain information.
- Stay away from chemicals like insecticides, solvents, many cleaners and paint.
- If you have a cat, avoid the litter box and talk to your doctor about toxoplasmosis.
- Stay away from secondhand smoke.