"Planning for pregnancy is an extremely important aspect of getting pregnant," says Rebecca Charneco, a registered nurse and perinatal educator at East Jefferson General Hospital. "Optimizing your health before you become pregnant will not only help you during pregnancy but can also help your chances of conception."
Your first step should always be to consult your physician. At that point, the doctor can review your medical history, look at any medications or supplements you are currently taking and evaluate your overall health, especially if you have chronic diseases such as diabetes, asthma, hypertension or other conditions that require ongoing treatment. If you are currently on birth control medication, discuss how stopping it could affect you.
Your physician can recommend the best course of action to get you in the best health possible. That may involve losing excess weight, starting or continuing an appropriate exercise program and mapping out what foods you should and should not eat as part of a well-balanced diet. Drastic weight loss or fluctuations are not advised and may affect your reproductive cycle.
The plan may include taking a prenatal vitamin containing folic acid. Vitamins play a key role in improving your health, and many studies indicate folic acid helps prevent brain and spinal cord problems in newborns. Women who plan to become pregnant usually are advised to take 400 mg of folic acid a day before conception and throughout the first trimester.
Your physician also should advise you to limit or eliminate alcohol consumption and avoiding tobacco products altogether. Alcohol can harm the fetus in its early stages, often before you are aware you're pregnant, and can lead to facial defects, growth deficiencies or central nervous system abnormalities.
Quitting smoking prior to pregnancy is vital to the health of the mother and the child. It is estimated that between 15 and 29 percent of pregnant women smoke, and the impact can be significant. Smoking has been linked to pre-term birth and low birth weight as well as an increased risk of perinatal mortality. In addition, after delivery, the child has a greater chance of needing extended hospitalization and has an increased chance of suffering Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, also known as SIDS.
"I tell everyone transitioning to pregnancy that they absolutely need to be comfortable with their physician and need to be open and honest about any concerns they may have," says Charneco. "Write down and ask any questions about issues that you are confused about. The physician is there to help you have the safest and healthiest pregnancy possible."
Charneco also says you should always let your physician know if you are having difficulty managing stress or if you are suffering from anxiety or depression. It is important to be both mentally and physically healthy going into pregnancy. Addressing any emotional issues early can help you cope during pregnancy and will allow your physician to monitor any possible postpartum warning signs.
Pregnancy is a special time in life, and going into it healthy and educated means less worry and more time to think about the future. Being prepared when your physician tells you, "Congratulations, you're pregnant," makes it even more special.