Planning for a baby — getting it right before pregnancy

Before you even become pregnant and embark on the exciting First 1000 Days journey, it’s a good idea to start thinking about nutrition, fitness and lifestyle — all important factors in setting you and your future baby up for the best possible experience. And that goes for your partner too — we now know that Dad’s health and lifestyle habits can also affect the health of the sperm and therefore the baby’s chances of good health throughout their lives. A healthy Mum- and Dad-to-be can stack all the odds in your favour to give any future baby the very best start in life — and the very best chances of long term good health and well-being.

Obesity, alcohol intake and a lack of some nutrients may make it a little more difficult to get pregnant, so start to think about your health 3-4 months in advance. Lose those extra few pounds, cut right back on alcohol, stop smoking if you or your partner do smoke and make small dietary changes now — they will all benefit your health, and that of your longed for baby, both now and right into the future.

  1. Be a healthy weight.
  2. Don’t forget your folic acid supplement
  3. Stop Smoking
  4. Cut out alcohol
  5. Think about Iron and Vitamin C — the perfect pair!
  6. Stock up on Calcium
  7. Don’t forget Vitamin D — Calcium’s partner in healthy bones

1. Be a healthy weight

Reaching a healthy body weight before you become pregnant is a great idea. Being too light or too heavy can affect your chances of becoming pregnant, so do have a think about that and make sure you are eating a wide range of healthy foods — fruit, vegetables, wholegrain cereals and breads, low fat dairy foods and lean meat and fish. Cut back on the sweet treats as they can add extra pounds but don’t have much nutritionally to offer. Being overweight while you are pregnant can increase your risk of high blood pressure or even developing diabetes during pregnancy. So now is the time to get in shape. Regular exercise will help too — so you can get out with your partner for some long walks while you discuss your plans for the future. And if you both embark on a new healthy eating and exercise plan together it will be easier to stay on track. It will be worth it — now is a great time to establish healthy lifestyle habits which you can pass onto your new baby when he or she arrives.

2. Don’t forget your folic acid

It’s usually better to recommend getting all the nutrients you need from eating whole foods rather than taking supplements or tablets, with one exception — that’s Folic Acid. For a healthy pregnancy, a folic acid supplement is recommended both before you become pregnant and for the first 12 weeks. Folic acid is important for the development of a healthy spine and brain in the early stages of pregnancy. The risk of spina bifida can be reduced if all Mums-to-be were taking a daily folic acid supplement so if this pregnancy is a surprise, it is a good idea to start taking folic acid as soon as you find out you are expecting.

So why can’t you just eat a diet rich in naturally occurring folic acid (called folate). It seems that to get the maximum benefit of this nutrient from the B vitamin family, a supplement of 400 micrograms per day is the best option. However, it is also a good idea to know a little more about folate and choose foods high in this vitamin to boost your levels at this time.

Commonly eaten foods that naturally contain folate include:

  • Green leafy vegetables (think of spinach, broccoli, cabbage and Brussels sprouts)
  • Peas and beans
  • Some fruits, especially oranges

Many foods now have folic acid added to them as they are made so these can be a good option for you too. They include:

  • Many brands of breakfast cereal
  • Some brands of milk
  • Some breads

So become Folate Friendly and check the labels!

3. Stop smoking

Smoking and babies just don’t mix, so now is a good time to start thinking about quitting if you are a smoker. Smoking can make it more difficult to become pregnant, and once pregnant, smoking is no good for you or your baby. If you are struggling to give up, look for help and support and if your partner smokes too you can be a good support for each other if you decide to quit together.

4. Cut out alcohol

Now is a good time to get used to being the designated driver on Saturday nights out. Alcohol is damaging to a baby’s growth and development, and there is no safe limit of alcohol advised during pregnancy. So why not cut it out altogether — it may be a giveaway to your friends but it’s a really worthwhile and positive change to make. And any calories you save will help to keep your weight in check too. This could be part of that healthy new lifestyle for both you and your partner — it is a good idea for your partner to drink alcohol in moderation too while planning a pregnancy as too much alcohol can also affect male fertility.

5. Think about Iron and Vitamin C — the perfect pair!

Iron is a key nutrient for pregnancy — so let’s find out a little more about it now so you can make sure to keep it on the menu now and right throughout your pregnancy. You need to think of iron regularly when choosing foods to make sure you are getting enough. Include some of the following in your diet: lean red meat (beef, lamb and pork), chicken, oily fish and eggs. Other non-animal foods which contain iron include breakfast cereals with added iron, peas, beans and lentils, dried fruits (prunes, apricots, raisins) and green vegetables like broccoli and spinach. Try to include at least one of these iron-rich foods at lunch and again with your evening meal.

Vitamin C can help your body to release the iron from the food so stock up on these good sources of Vitamin C to boost your iron levels:

  • Oranges (or freshly squeezed juice)
  • Berries
  • Kiwi fruit
  • Tomatoes
  • Potatoes
  • Green vegetables
  • Peppers

Think of combining one of these foods with your iron-rich foods to pack a nutritious punch. So have your freshly squeezed juice with your wholegrain breakfast cereal or a baby spinach and tomato salad with an omelette — all simple combinations to ensure you get the most from your meal.

6. Stock up on Calcium

When we think of calcium we think of milk — milk and dairy foods are the best foods to eat/drink to ensure you get enough calcium every day.

Now that you are planning for a baby you need 800mg of calcium per day. If you choose a glass of milk, a carton of yogurt or an ounce of cheese 3 times a day you will be getting all the calcium you need.

Sounds like a lot? Well remember that if you cook with milk or cheese the calcium is still there so we can add cheese sauce, melted cheese on toast, hot chocolate drinks, milk added to your tea or coffee and milk on your cereal in the morning to this list.

And it’s a good idea to choose low fat products — half the fat (or less) but the same amount of calcium which is good news for your bones and your waistline!

7. Don’t forget Vitamin D — Calcium’s partner for healthy bones

Vitamin D is receiving lots of good press at the moment and its benefits seem to be far-reaching — from its role in building strong bones to heart health and even the prevention of certain cancers. However, in Ireland we have poor levels of this important vitamin, due mostly to the fact that we do not get enough sunlight to produce vitamin D on our skin. Often called the ‘Sunshine Vitamin’, vitamin D is converted into its active form when we stretch our arms and legs out in the sun for a few minutes on a bright sunny day.

However, lack of sunlight and more awareness of the importance of using sunblock now mean that our levels of Vitamin D are critically low. In fact the Food Safety Authority of Ireland now recommends that we should all take a daily supplement to ensure we don’t run short.

Vitamin D does occur naturally in foods but some of the foods are not commonly eaten every day and so our intakes can be less than perfect.

Good sources of vitamin D include:

  • Oily fish — herrings, mackerel, sardines, salmon, trout
  • Eggs — the yolk contains the Vitamin D
  • Fortified foods — some brands of milk, spreadable margarines and breakfast cereals have added vitamin D so check the label.

If these are not foods you regularly choose, you may need to talk to your GP or Practice Nurse about taking a supplement that includes Vitamin D.

First 1000 Days Team

Our expert team of dietitians and nutritionists have created lots of articles, tips, advice and recipes all about the importance of good nutrition to help you give your baby the healthiest possible start in life.

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