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Five Steps to a Healthy Pregnancy

  • Chris Woolston, M.S.
  • Posted March 11, 2013

When you're pregnant, you could easily spend nine months worrying about everything that can go wrong. But there's another option: Instead of simply worrying, you can take these five crucial steps to protect your pregnancy. By following these steps, you can dramatically reduce the risk of miscarriage, premature delivery, birth defects, and other complications. As a bonus, you'll be giving yourself the strength, energy, and confidence you'll need to thrive throughout the pregnancy and birth.

Here is what to keep in mind:

Eat well. Your growing baby has only one source of building materials: You. The foods you eat today will become part of his brain or his toes or his heart tomorrow. With so much at stake, this is not the time to go on a low-calorie diet. It's also not the time to skimp on any of the food groups. If you're like most women, you probably already get plenty of protein every day from eggs, meat, nuts, and other sources. But you may have to make an extra effort to reach other important goals. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says pregnant women should get at least three servings of fruits, four servings of vegetables, six to nine servings of grains or cereal, and at least four servings of low-fat or nonfat dairy products every day.

Now that you're pregnant, take a few extra precautions at mealtime. To avoid food poisoning, make doubly sure that all meats and fish are fully cooked. Don't eat fish that contain high levels of mercury, including shark, swordfish, tilefish, and king mackerel. You can have up to 12 ounces, or two regular-sized portions, of salmon, catfish, and other low-mercury fish, a week. Tuna also contains mercury, but it's safe to eat as long as you don't have more than six ounces in a week. (You can have up to 12 ounces each week if you stick to canned "light" tuna.)

Take your supplements. No matter how careful you are at the dinner table, you'll probably have a shortage of two key nutrients: folic acid and iron. Not getting enough folic acid raises the risk of birth defects in the brain and spine. Women who could become pregnant should get 400 micrograms of folic acid daily and more if they become pregnant. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration urges all pregnant women to get 800 micrograms of folic acid every day; while the Institute of Medicine recommends 600 micrograms daily, with a safe upper limit of 800 micrograms daily for pregnant women under 18 and 1000 micrograms daily for pregnant women over 18. Your doctor can help you choose the prenatal supplement that's right for you.

Start taking iron supplements after talking with your doctor at your first prenatal visit. The usual dose is 20 -27 milligrams each day. Iron in your bloodstream helps deliver oxygen to every part of your body, as well as to the placenta, which feeds your baby. If you don't have enough iron, you can become anemic, increasing the chance that your baby will be born prematurely or underweight.

A good prenatal vitamin will include both folic acid and iron. Most practitioners recommend that women start taking daily prenatal vitamins before getting pregnant, and continue using them through the pregnancy until they stop breastfeeding. Pregnancy can also drain your body of calcium, so you'll want to boost your calcium intake as well.

Don't smoke or drink alcohol. Growing babies can't cope with cigarettes and alcohol. The more you smoke, the more you restrict the baby's oxygen supply and raise the risk of miscarriage, stillbirth, premature delivery, low birth weight, and other complications. It's a good idea to avoid secondhand smoke as well. Likewise, federal experts say there's NO safe level of alcohol during pregnancy. Heavy or binge drinking during pregnancy, in particular, can damage a baby's brain and may cause a devastating birth defect called fetal alcohol syndrome. Even light drinking has been linked to learning disabilities and behavior problems in childhood, among other things. If you're having trouble giving up smoking or drinking, ask your doctor for help.

Take your medicine -- carefully. The medicine cabinet isn't off-limits just because you're pregnant. If you have a chronic condition such as high blood pressure or diabetes, medications may be crucial to your health and your pregnancy. Your doctor may change your prescription or your dosage to give you the maximum benefit with the fewest risks. You should also check with your doctor before taking over-the-counter supplements or drugs such as pain relievers or allergy medicine. Some options will be safer than others. For instance, aspirin and ibuprofen may raise the risk of miscarriage, but acetaminophen (Tylenol) is known to be safe during most pregnancies.

Get regular prenatal care. Ideally, you should start getting prenatal care even before you conceive. If you plan to get pregnant, your doctor can check your overall health, make sure your vaccinations are current, and generally help you get your pregnancy off to the best possible start. Once you become pregnant, schedule a prompt appointment with your family doctor, an obstetrician, or another health professional.

You'll need to see your doctor several times throughout the pregnancy, more often if you have a high-risk pregnancy. Prenatal visits are more than just a chance to get cool ultrasound pictures or listen to your baby's heartbeat. In many cases, these visits can help prevent premature delivery and other complications. These visits will help you make important decisions that increase the chances of having a good outcome for you and your baby.

These five crucial steps will go a long way toward keeping you and your baby safe and healthy, but they aren't the only things you can do to protect your pregnancy. Be sure to talk to your health-care provider about any concerns you have and any additional steps you should be taking. You probably can't completely stop worrying about your baby, but you can feel confident that you're doing your best.

References

Before You Are Pregnant. March of Dimes. 2010.

Healthy Eating During Pregnancy. March of Dimes. 2010.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Medicine and Pregnancy. 2010.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Getting Ready for Pregnancy. Last updated, April 10, 2010.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration. How Folate Can Help Prevent Birth Defects. http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/fdafolic.html

Dietary Reference Intakes: Vitamins. Institute of Medicine, Updated 2005.

Office of Dietary Supplements. Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet: Iron. http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/iron.asp

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