Making healthy babies is a major concern for hundreds of thousands of parents-to-be each year with close to 300,000 babies born each year Australia-wide
Making the decision to start a family is an exciting and life changing decision. The odds of a young intimate couple conceiving are around one in five every month, with 90% falling pregnant within a year.
The preconception medical checkup
The health of mums-to-be can be a key factor in conceiving so a having a check-up before conception is important. This includes a general examination, cervical cancer test, tests for sexually transmissible infections and fertility-affecting diseases like chlamydia, blood tests to check for anaemia, blood type and immunity against German measles and chickenpox. It would also be useful to screen for conditions such as hepatitis B, hepatitis C and HIV.
A doctor will also identify possible issues after reviewing the family, medical, pregnancy, drug, and nutritional histories. They will provide information about available services, advise on body weight to help conception, refer for genetic counselling, review any medications, give advice on stopping birth control, and refer to a specialist for pre–existing conditions.
Difficulties falling pregnant might be the result of the women’s problems with ovulation, the ovaries, fallopian tubes, the uterus, cervix, endometriosis, low body weight, excessive exercise, age or cigarette smoking. Men might have problems due to testicular injury, sperm quality, impotence, or hormonal problems.
No special diet guarantees conception, though eating healthily including fresh fruits, vegetables and lean meats, iron, folate and iodine, when trying to conceive is sensible.
Folate or folic acid is a B group vitamin essential for many bodily functions and since the body can’t make its own, must be obtained through diet. Increased folate intake for a month prior to conceiving and for the first three months of pregnancy minimises the risk of neural tube defects in the developing foetus which in 2001 impacted six in every 10,000 births. The defects can include spina bifida, encephalocoele and anencephaly – failures of the spinal cord or brain to develop normally in the very early foetal development. Adequate levels of folate can prevent 70% of all neural tube defects.
A supplement that contains at least 500 micrograms of folic acid is recommended, though good sources are leafy green vegetables, legumes, and cereals, juices and most bread fortified with folic acid. Excellent sources of folate include asparagus, bran flakes, broccoli, brussel sprouts, chickpeas, and lentils, cabbage, cauliflower, leeks, oranges, orange juice, parsley and wholegrain bread.
During pregnancy, a woman’s requirement for iron increases as the developing foetus draws iron from its mother to last it through the first five or six months after birth. The recommended daily intake during pregnancy is 27 mg a day, 9 mg a day more than for non-pregnant women. Mums-to-be should eat iron-rich foods every day including meat, chicken, seafood, dried beans and lentils, and green leafy vegetables. Iron from plant sources is not easily absorbed but absorption is helped when these foods are eaten together with Vitamin C rich foods like oranges.
Equally important for pre conception and when pregnant is 150 mg per day of iodine, a mineral needed for the production of thyroid hormone which affects organ and brain development at various stages. Good sources of iodine include seafood and seaweed, eggs, meat and dairy products and iodised salt.
Multivitamin supplements may be advisable for some pregnant women including vegans and vegetarians, teenagers with minimal food intake, over-users of drugs, tobacco and alcohol, and overweight women.
Previous Australian dietary recommendations advised increased calcium intake during pregnancy and breastfeeding – but this advice has since been revised due to the mother’s increased capacity to absorb calcium during pregnancy.
Once pregnant, you should enjoy regular moderate exercise and rest so your body is in good shape for the birth and the arrival of your new family member.
_____________________________________________________________________Dr Peter Wood is one of over 35 obstetricians and gynaecologists from Sydney Adventist Hospital in Wahroonga, which delivers more than 2,200 babies each year.