Making the decision to try for a baby is incredibly exciting. But it’s also normal to feel a little overwhelmed by the volume of information about what you should do to increase your chances of becoming pregnant. Before you delve into the details of how to prepare your body for pregnancy, remember that every woman has a different pregnancy experience and there is no step-by-step guide that guarantees conception or a healthy pregnancy.
Preconception care is important
That being said, there are benefits to being proactive about preconception measures. Making health and lifestyle changes before pregnancy not only improves your chances of becoming pregnant, it also prepares your body for a healthy pregnancy, and reduces the likelihood of developmental or health problems for your baby.
What should you do to prepare your body for pregnancy?
- Increase your folate intake: this vitamin is critical for neural tube formation during a baby’s development. The neural tube develops in the early stages of pregnancy, and later becomes the brain, spinal cord and surrounding bones. Increasing your folate intake before you become pregnant reduces your risk of having a baby with a neural tube defect such as spina bifida. Although folate is found in food (e.g. fruits, vegetables, legumes and nuts), and some foods are even fortified with folate (e.g. most breads and some cereals and juices), most pregnant women don’t get enough folate from their diet alone. You should take folic acid – a folate supplement – to ensure you meet the daily intake requirements when preparing for pregnancy. For most women, the correct dose of folate is 0.5 mg/day. Novel folic acid preparations (such as folinic acid) are becoming popular; however, these alternative formulations have never been proven to reduce neural tube defects, and therefore cannot be recommended. If you take folic acid alternatives, I recommend you take normal folic acid as well.
- Maintain a healthy weight: it’s important to be in a healthy weight range when trying for a baby. Women who are overweight or underweight can have reduced fertility for many reasons. Being a healthy weight when you become pregnant also makes it easier to manage weight gain during pregnancy, which has health benefits for you and your baby, including reducing the risk of pregnancy complications like high blood pressure, diabetes and growth restriction in your baby. The best way to do this is by keeping active and eating well.
- Eat a healthy diet: a well-balanced, nutritious diet not only helps you manage your weight – certain foods can actually affect your fertility. Those who know me well know that I love a very low sugar and low carbohydrate diet.
- Exercise regularly: keeping fit through moderate-intensity exercise and weight training has a positive effect on fertility. It’s also good to build up your fitness before becoming pregnant, because keeping active during pregnancy has massive benefits for you and your baby.
- Limit your alcohol intake: heavy drinking is bad for fertility. Excess alcohol consumption can increase the time it takes to get pregnant and reduce the chances of having a healthy baby. It’s advisable to limit how much you drink if you are planning to become pregnant. Even small amounts of alcohol intake in either men or women reduces fertility as a couple.
- Stop smoking: cigarette smoke, including second-hand smoke, reduces fertility. The negative impact of smoking on fertility can last up to a year after you stop, so if you are planning to become pregnant it’s important to quit as soon as possible. Smoking is also detrimental to the health of your baby.
- Limit your caffeine intake: while the impact of caffeine on fertility is not fully understood, existing evidence suggests that limiting caffeine intake is beneficial. Women who are trying to get pregnant should limit their caffeine intake to 1 cup of coffee per day.
- Have a general health check: visit your GP and tell them you are planning to become pregnant. This gives you a chance to discuss any existing medical conditions and/or medication you take, and how to manage those during pregnancy. At this appointment, you’ll usually have some routine tests as well, such as a breast check, blood pressure test and a pap smear if it’s due.
- Make sure your vaccinations are up to date: infectious diseases can cause serious harm to a developing baby. If you are planning to become pregnant, make sure that you have been immunised for diseases such as rubella, chickenpox and measles.
- Visit the dentist: hormonal changes during pregnancy can lead to dental problems, such as gum disease and tooth decay. Researchers have demonstrated an association between gum disease in pregnant women and premature birth with low birth weight, so it’s important that you look after your oral health while you are pregnant. Have a dental check if you are planning a pregnancy and always maintain good oral hygiene.
- See a fertility specialist: if you have a reproductive health condition such as PCOS, irregular periods, fibroids or endometriosis, or if you suffer from recurrent miscarriage, you may need extra medical help to get pregnant. A gynaecologist that specialises in fertility will be able to help you manage your condition to improve your chances of getting pregnant.