We know that healthy women have fewer complications during pregnancy and are more likely to have healthy babies that grow into healthy children. It is for these reasons that looking to improve your health before conception is an excellent way to give your pregnancy and your baby the very best start. Partners also have a role to play in staying healthy.
We have provided some advice below, tailored to women and families planning a pregnancy, which might help you on your journey to better health prior to conception.
Protecting your baby from tobacco smoke is one of the best things you can do to give your child a healthy start in life. Stopping smoking in early pregnancy can almost completely prevent damage to your baby. Stopping smoking at any time during pregnancy reduces the risk of damage. It can be difficult to stop smoking, but specialist support is available.
Benefits of stopping smoking in pregnancy
Stopping smoking will help both you and your baby immediately. Harmful gases, such as carbon monoxide, and other damaging chemicals will clear from your body.
When you stop smoking:
- You will reduce the risk of complications in pregnancy and birth.
- You are more likely to have a healthier pregnancy and a healthier baby.
- You will reduce the risk of stillbirth.
- Your baby is less likely to be born too early and has to face the breathing, feeding and health problems that often go with being premature.
- Your baby is less likely to be born with a low birth weight. Babies of smokers are, on average, 200g (about 8oz) lighter than other babies, which can cause problems during and after labour. For example, they are more likely to have problems keeping warm and are more likely to get infections.
- You will reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), also know as "cot death".
Stopping smoking now will also help your baby later in life. Children whose parents smoke are more likely to suffer from asthma and other serious illnesses that may need hospital treatment. The sooner you stop smoking, the better.
Tobacco dependency treatment is available throughout pregnancy and for one year postnatally, this includes:
- Telephone and online support.
- Free nicotine replacement therapy sent in the post and access to stop smoking prescription medications.
- Advice, top tips and printed resources.
- A friendly, supportive Facebook community group.
- Stop smoking APP.
- Support for partners and family members.
You can also call the NHS Smokefree helpline on 0300 123 1044 or ask a midwife for more information.
There are a number of things you can do to improve your physical wellbeing before you have a baby. You can improve your chances of getting pregnant and having a healthy pregnancy by consuming a balanced diet and doing regular exercise. For further guidance on healthy eating, take a look at the Eatwell Guide.
Being overweight (having a BMI over 25) or obese (having a BMI over 30) also raises the risk of some pregnancy problems, such as high blood pressure, deep vein thrombosis, miscarriage and gestational diabetes.
Before you get pregnant you can use the BMI healthy weight calculator to find out your BMI. This may not be accurate once you're pregnant, so consult your midwife or doctor.
For more support with your Physical Wellbeing, please speak to your GP.
Your mental health and emotional wellbeing is as important as your physical health. Planning for a pregnancy can be an emotional and sometimes overwhelming time for many women and their families. Many women ask themselves questions like:
- Will I make a good parent?
- How might this change my relationships with friends and family?
- How will I manage financially?
- Will I still have a life and identity of my own?
- What happens if we don't conceive easily?
It's very common to have these thoughts and feelings whilst you prepare for a pregnancy. It is a good time to think about how you will look after your mental health and wellbeing. Evidence suggests there are a number of steps that can help such as:
- Connecting with other people to help build belonging and self-worth and to provide emotional support
- Be physically active. Your mental wellbeing is closely linked with your physical wellbeing
- Pay attention to the present moment, which is often called mindfulness.
You may find The Pregnancy and Post-Birth Wellbeing Plan from Tommy's Charity useful to us.
Many vaccinations are not safe to take during pregnancy; it is therefore advised that you ensure you are up to date with your vaccinations at least 3 months before conceiving.
Some infections, such as rubella, can harm your baby if you catch them during pregnancy. To prevent rubella, you should ensure you have received all your MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccinations at least 1 month before conception.
Eating a healthy diet whilst you are trying to conceive will give you many of nutrients your body needs. However when planning to become pregnant, and during a pregnancy, there are recommended supplements to take.
Some women choose to take a pre-conception, or pregnancy multi-vitamin. If you choose to do this, it is important that the supplement is pre-conecption or pregnancy specific. Other supplements will contain vitamin A and this is not recommended during pregnancy.
Whilst others may choose not to take a full supplement, it is recommended that you take folic acid and vitamin D before and during pregnancy.
Folic acid helps to prevent neural tube defects duch as spina bifida. The recommended dose is 0.4mg or 400 micrograms per day for at least 8 weeks before pregnancy and for up to 12 weeks into pregnancy.
A higher dose of 5mg per day is recommended and prescribed by your GP if:
- you or your baby's biological father have a neural tube defect
- you or your baby's biological father have a family history of neural tube defects
- you have a BMI of more than 30
- you are taking anti-epileptic drugs
- you have a family history of fetal abnormalities
- you have diabetes
Vitamin D regulates the amount of calcium and phosphate in the body which are needed to keep bones and teeth healthy. Deficiency in vitamin D can cause children's bones to soften and can lead to rickets.
All adults, including pregnant and breastfeeding women, need 10mcg of vitamin D each day. During the spring and summer months (April - September), most people get all the vitamin D they need from sunlight. However, in the winter months (October - March), it is advised that vitamin D is taken as a supplement. This is something we recommend you take whilst trying to conceive.
If you have dark skin, for example, you or your family have an African, Caribbean or South Asian background, or wear a burka or niqab, you may not get enough vitamin D from sunlight and should consider taking a supplement all year.
The NHS England website has more information on vaccinations and supplements before and during pregnancy.