There is no such thing as the average pregnancy, but there are some simple steps everyone can follow to make sure each and every pregnancy is a healthy one.
Organise your antenatal care early in your pregnancy:
Good antenatal care is essential to your baby’s health. Choosing your doctor early means you’ll have months to build a good relationship before your baby is born. When choosing your doctor, get recommendations from friends and family. A good doctor is one who is able to give you personalised care, encourages you to ask questions, treats you with respect and answers all your queries patiently. Ideally, choose a doctor with a clinic close to your home. You might need to reach them quickly in an emergency, so it’s a good idea to have their mobile number close at hand.
There’s no need to ‘eat for two’ when you’re pregnant. You may well need an extra 200-300 calories each day, but this is equivalent to:
- a couple of slices of wholemeal toast and margarine/butter
- a jacket potato with a small amount of cheese
- one slice of cheese on toast
- an extra glass of milk.
It is important to eat a balanced and healthy diet. You might go off certain foods, but it’s always possible to swap these with others of similar nutritional value.
Have some milk and dairy foods every day, such as milk, yoghurt, ice cream, buttermilk and cheese. However, if you are lactose-intolerant, choose other calcium-rich sources, such as chickpeas, kidney beans, oats, almonds, soymilk and tofu.
You might find it better to eat five or six small, well-balanced meals a day rather than three larger meals. Don’t skip any meals if you can help it.
Keep yourself well hydrated by drinking at least eight to ten glasses of water every day. Avoid caffeinated and artificially flavoured drinks and have fresh fruit juices, soups, and milk.
Be careful about food hygiene:
It is better to avoid certain foods in pregnancy because they carry an infection that can be a health risk for your baby.
Listeria is an infection that can cause miscarriage or severe illness in newborns. The listeria organism may be present in raw milk, non-pasteurised milk, raw meat and unwashed vegetables. So buy pasteurized milk, cook meat well and wash vegetables carefully. Refrigeration does not stop the growth of Listeria.
Toxoplasmosis, is a parasite. It is rare, but can seriously affect an unborn baby. It is found in raw and undercooked meat and in soil and cat faeces. So make sure that meat is well cooked. Wash vegetables and salads to remove any traces of soil or dirt. If you have a cat, ask someone else to clear up any cat mess. Salmonella is a food poisoning bacteria. It does not harm your baby, but may make you feel very unwell. Salmonella can be found in undercooked poultry and raw or soft-cooked eggs. So cook poultry well, and cook eggs until they are hard.
Try to eat freshly prepared meals whenever possible. If you do have a ready meal, check the best before date and that the packaging is not damaged. It’s also worth checking the nutritional value and the list of ingredients, as there may be additives or preservatives that are unsuitable for pregnant women. MSG, for example, may trigger headaches, nausea and vomiting in sensitive individuals, although there is no evidence that it is harmful to a developing baby. Any packaging that is bloated, leaking or damaged, indicates potential risks of contamination.
Take folic acid supplements
Folic acid (also called folate) is the only supplement that is considered vital. It can help prevent spina bifida and other neural tube defects in babies.
Spina bifida is a serious congenital condition affecting the central nervous system that can cause severe disabilities. All women planning a pregnancy are advised to take a daily supplement of 400mcg of folic acid starting around the time of conception and continuing through the first three months of pregnancy.
You can also increase your intake of natural folate through your diet. Folate is found in vegetables like spinach, peas, lady’s finger, lettuce, beans and capsicum as well as in fortified breakfast cereals.
Calcium-rich foods are milk, cheese and tinned sardines (with bones), soy milk, tofu, leafy green vegetables, sesame seeds, kidney beans, chickpeas, nuts and oats. If you think your diet may lack calcium, speak to your doctor who may prescribe a suitable calcium supplement.
A good exercise programme can give you the strength and endurance you’ll need to carry the weight you gain during pregnancy and to handle the physical stress of labour. It will also make it easier to get back in shape after your baby is born.
Exercise can boost your spirits and help ward off the pregnancy blues. A recent study found that staying active can boost your level of serotonin, a brain chemical linked to mood.
If you’re used to taking exercise in the form of a sport, you can continue with this as long as it feels comfortable for you, unless your particular sport carries a risk of falls or knocks. More gentle exercises such as walking, swimming, aqua aerobics, and yoga are also very beneficial. Make sure you check with your doctor before starting any exercise routine.
Begin doing pelvic floor exercises:
The ideal time to begin pelvic floor exercises is adolescence, but many women don’t hear about them until pregnancy.
The pelvic floor muscles are the hammock of muscles at the base of your pelvis that support the bladder, vagina and rectum. They can be weakened by pregnancy because of the extra pressure on them, and because the hormones of pregnancy cause them to slacken slightly. You can strengthen your pelvic floor by doing daily exercises. Try and do them frequently throughout the day – when you wash your hands, brush your teeth, or wait for the kettle to boil.
Limit your alcohol intake:
Because any alcohol you drink rapidly reaches your baby via your bloodstream and placenta, you may decide to cut it out completely, or at least to monitor the amount you consume.
Pregnant women should drink no more than eight units of alcohol per week, and no more than two units at any one time. Women who have more than two drinks a day are at greater risk of giving birth to a baby with fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). Children born with FAS suffer from mental and growth retardation, behavioural problems, and facial and heart defects.
Cut back on caffeine:
Coffee, tea and cola-style beverages are mild stimulants, and some research suggests that too much caffeine may increase the risk of having a low-birth-weight baby.
The current advice is that two cups of coffee or tea per day (or up to five cans of cola) won’t hurt your baby. You may prefer to switch to decaffeinated coffee or tea, or drink fruit juices instead. A refreshing alternative is a glass of mineral water with a twist of lime or lemon or tender coconut water. You could also drink fresh fruit or vegetable juices as they contain plenty of vitamins and minerals for you and your baby.
Women who smoke increase their risk of miscarriage, premature delivery, stillbirth and cot death.
Some studies have shown that women who smoke 20 or more cigarettes a day during pregnancy are more likely to give birth to a baby with a cleft lip or palate. While it is best to give up smoking before you even try to conceive, any reduction in the number of cigarettes you smoke per day will give your baby a better chance. It is best not to be exposed to cigarette smoke at all. Encourage your husband to give up as well, or at least to avoid smoking inside the house. Tell visitors and relatives that your home is a ‘no smoking’ zone.
Get Plenty of Rest:
The fatigue you feel in the first and third trimesters is your body’s way of saying ‘slow down’. A nap in the middle of the day may seem like a luxury you can’t afford, but you and your baby will both benefit. Take any offers of help. To make sure you get enough rest, try to reduce your working hours, and perhaps cut down on some social commitments.
If you can’t sleep, at least put your feet up and relax for 30 minutes or more, however, is best for you. Relaxation techniques such as yoga, stretching, deep breathing and massage are all good at reducing stress and can help you get a better night’s sleep.