Soft coos, delicate skin, tiny limbs and the sweetest smell ever — this is what I think of when I think of babies. I am in awe of their purity and perfection from the moment they enter this world. I often think back to the birth of my daughter and those first few weeks of her life, and how l would stare at her for hours (knowing that I should be sleeping). I was simply amazed that I created this perfect, healthy and beautiful being. As I watched her, I also felt a sense of accomplishment and pride, because I knew I did everything in my power to ensure I was healthy before and during my pregnancy so she would have the greatest chance at being healthy, too.
As someone who works in maternal and child health and who is also a super-organized Virgo, I knew the importance of planning my pregnancy. I knew that there were a lot of things I needed to do for my own health, before I got pregnant, to ensure I had a healthy baby.
Many people think that it is not possible to plan a pregnancy, that it is something that just happens. Sure it does just happen sometimes (actually a lot of times), but you can definitely plan a pregnancy.
I had to explain this to my husband who was skeptical that this could be done. But think of it this way, when you make the decision on whether to have or not to have children, you are actually doing a bit of planning. As a woman, when you decide that you are not ready to have children you probably take the necessary precautions such as abstinence or selecting your preferred method of birth control. It’s the same concept when you are ready to get pregnant. You have to take the necessary steps to begin that process such as eating better and talking with your gynecologist about prenatal care. Did you know that 50% of pregnancies in the U.S. are unplanned? So, it is really important that you make sure you and your body are ready for a baby at any time if there’s a possibility you do or could or might get pregnant.
With high rates of infant mortality and premature births occurring in many communities across the U.S., ensuring women are healthy before, during and after pregnancy, has become an important public health issue.
Whether you want to have a baby next month or two years from now, the time is now to get your body is ready and create a plan. In the world of public health, we call this preconception health and health care. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) refer to preconception health as the health of women and men during their reproductive years, which are the years they can have a child. It focuses on taking steps now to protect the health of a baby they might have sometime in the future. Whereas, preconception health care is the medical care a woman or man receives from the doctor or other health professionals that focuses on the parts of health that have been shown to increase the chance of having a healthy baby. To help you get started with your preconception health planning, here are five simple things you can begin doing today. Taking these small steps towards a healthy lifestyle can make a difference now and in the future!
Visit your doctor: If you are ready to get pregnant soon, make an appointment to see your doctor. You want to talk with him or her about your health history and current health conditions that could affect a pregnancy, previous pregnancy issues/complications, any medications you are taking that may impact a pregnancy and other concerns you may have regarding your health. If you are not ready to have a baby right now, but think you will some day, it is still important that you discuss your health history with your doctor at your annual check up. You want to be sure to address all health issues before you get pregnant if you can. Here are few things to consider:
- Get a check-up on issues such as high blood pressure, diabetes, asthma and thyroid disease.
- Get tested for HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.
- Discuss your family history. It is important for your baby’s health to know if a family member has/had health conditions like sickle cell or heart disease.
Take a vitamin with folic acid. Women should consume a minimum of 400 micrograms of folic acid each day. If a woman has enough folic acid in her body at least one month before and during pregnancy, it can help prevent major birth defects of the baby’s brain and spine. Generally, a woman doesn’t know she is pregnant until after week four of gestation, which is the most critical period of development. During this time, the neural tube is forming which develop into the nervous system (brain, spinal cord, hair and skin) and the heart and primitive circulatory system begins to form. This is why preconception health is so important. By taking of your body in advance, you can feel a little better about this four-week period of development for the fetus.
Practice healthy eating and exercise habits. This is something you should be doing regardless if you are planning for a baby now or in five years. However, maintaining a healthy weight is important to having a healthy pregnancy. Women who are obese, overweight or even underweight are a higher risk for pregnancy complications and serious health problems. If you need help creating a balanced diet, consider talking with a registered dietitian. Also, don’t forget to move, move, move. Incorporate at least 30 minutes of physical activity in your daily routine. No time to get to a gym or for a walk during your lunch hour? Consider parking further away from the store or taking the stairs instead of the elevator. These small changes can help you reach your daily fitness goals.
Reduce your stress and anxiety. I cannot emphasize this point enough. Consider seeing a therapist, attending a stress management workshop and how your relationships are easing or adding to your stress levels. If you have a demanding job, inquire about working remotely a couple of days a week. Try prenatal yoga or meditation to help you relax. Lean on your support network and ask for help when you need it. While it is common to be stressed during pregnancy, too much stress can be harmful to you and your baby. According to the March of Dimes, high-level stress during pregnancy can increase the chances of having a premature baby (born before 37 weeks of pregnancy) or a low-birthweight baby (weighing less than 5-½ pounds). Babies born too soon or too small are at increased risk for health problems. If you are feeling a level of stress or anxiety that is making you uncomfortable, I urge you talk to your doctor immediately.
Don’t smoke, drink or use drugs. If you are actively trying to have a baby or currently pregnant, consuming alcohol and drugs can have a negative impact on the health and development of your fetus such as premature birth, birth defects (like fetal alcohol syndrome), and other complications.
Now that you have your preconception health roadmap in hand, you are better prepared to make a decision about when you would like to plan for a baby. Regardless of when you decide, you can be confident in knowing that you have access to information and resources (check out our list below) that will help you be a healthier woman.
Resources to consider
For more information on how you can begin planning for a baby or how to create your own reproductive life plan, visit the CDC website to learn about preconception health and health care and their Show Your Love Campaign.
Are you pregnant now or planning to be pregnant soon? Sign up to receive free text messages from TEXT4baby with tips on how to keep you and your baby healthy. You will receive text messages throughout your pregnancy and the baby’s first year.
Want to know more about stress during pregnancy and tips to reduce stress? Visit the March of Dimes website for more information and also check out the resources they have on other pregnancy, birth and baby related topics.
TapGenes TakeAway: A few simple life changes can have a positive effect on your pregnancy and the health of your future baby.
Read more on TapGenes:
- Prenatal genetic testing: What to know, what to ask and what to prepare
- 4 beautiful ways to become a parent
- Should kid wear sunglasses?
Stacey C. Penny, MSW, MPH is an expert in maternal and child health, racial and health inequities, and non-profit management. With advanced degrees in both social work and public health, Stacey has worked with national non-profit child and family focused organizations for 17 years, including the National Healthy Start Association where she was the Executive Director. She recently launched The Penny Consulting Group to provide organizations and agencies with services around strategy, development and technical assistance.