Preconception care and preparing for parenthood
21st June 2019
The term preconception care refers to the ways in which we can prepare ourselves for parenthood – and do so healthily. This includes medical, behavioural and healthy lifestyle choices that reduce the risks involved in pregnancy and infant health. Ultimately, the aim of preconception care is to improve both the short and long term health of mother and baby. However, the benefits of a proper preconception care plan are far reaching and can positively impact the whole family. Opportunities to improve preconception health occur at multiple stages of life and it’s important to understand the key factors long before trying to conceive.
Why is preconception care important?
We should all be thinking about our health whether or not we are planning to start a family. Many women will make healthier lifestyle choices once becoming pregnant, but your choices before that point are just as important. One of the main reasons preconception care is encouraged is because about half of pregnancies are not planned. Research shows that unplanned pregnancies are at greater risk of premature birth and underweight babies. This is largely down to a lack of preconception care and exposure to risk factors before and during pregnancy. Experts agree that the healthier mothers are the less likely they are to have premature babies.
Components of preconception care
Components of preconception health are diverse and far reaching and ttouch upon elements of both physical and mental health. Generally it comes down making healthy life choices and having an awareness of how your behaviours can impact your fertility and your baby.
Can smoking affect your chances of getting pregnant?
It’s common knowledge that you shouldn’t smoke during pregnancy as it can cause serious harm to your baby and yourself. However, quitting smoking is also an important component of preconception care. Smoking can impact fertility in a multitude of ways, and reduce your odds of a healthy pregnancy. Firstly, heavy smoking can damage both the uterus and the ovaries, not only decreasing your fertility but also increasing your chance of miscarriage. The quality of your eggs is also impacted by the harmful chemicals in cigarette smoke. If you are a smoker, it is a good idea to stop smoking long before you get pregnant. Not only will it increase your chances of conceiving naturally, but it will be an easier transition to make rather than having to quit immediately on finding out you’re carrying a baby.
How does alcohol affect preconception?
Similarly to smoking, many people focus on dramatically reducing their alcohol intake once they are pregnant. The NHS actually advises that expectant mothers abstain from alcohol altogether. However, whilst there are no hard rules about drinking when TTC, it is advisable to cut down on your units.
Binge drinking can wreak havoc with your menstrual cycle, making it difficult to predict your most fertile window. Heavy alcohol intake can also interfere with ovulation and make it harder for fertilised eggs to implant in the womb. The dangers of alcohol for a foetus are even greater. The toxins from alcohol can transfer from the mother’s bloodstream into the baby’s via the placenta. These toxins can damage the baby’s development and could lead to brain damage or other deformities. As you won’t always realise exactly when you become pregnant, sticking to soft drinks when actively trying for a baby is the sensible choice.
Considering mental health in preconception
Mental health can often go overlooked in preconception care, but it is an essential part of the puzzle. 20% of women experience mental health issues during their pregnancy and in the first year postpartum. Dealing with any pre-existing mental health issues before embarking on the hormonal rollercoaster that is pregnancy is just as important as physically preparing your body for pregnancy. Taking these precautionary steps at preconception stage can have a positive impact far in to motherhood. If untreated maternal mental illness during the perinatal period can adversely affect infant cognitive, emotional and behavioural outcomes, maternal-infant bonding and quality of parenting.
Stress can also be a debilitating factor in fertility – for both men and women. Having raised cortisol over an extended period of time can lower testosterone and also mess with your ovulation. Your body is smart – it knows that periods of stress are not a great time to bring a baby into the equation.
What can you do to prepare your body for pregnancy?
Pregnancy is one of the most incredible things to happen to the human body, so it’s important to take steps to prepare yourself physically for this exciting challenge.
Think about your diet and exercise routine
Being close to your ‘ideal’ weight is proven to help you get pregnant faster. This goes for being underweight as well as over weight – so don’t head for unhealthy crash diets. Exercising for fertility and to prepare yourself for pregnancy is an important factor of preconception care. It’s also a positive step for your own mental and physical health.Some women struggle with body image issues as they are becoming mothers, which can really impact their experience of parenthood. Getting into healthy habits and feeling connected with your body is a good way to maintain a positive relationship with your body through pregnancy.
Even if you hate the idea of the gym, even a moderate exercise regime can make a real difference. Thirty minutes of activity – such as strength training or aerobic exercise – is a great way to start your preconception planning. What’s more, exercise increases endorphins which help you relax and enjoy the baby making process. Strengthening your core, with exercises such as pilates and yoga, can also help increase your chances of an easier labour and recovery.
However, don’t push yourself too hard, especially if you’re not used to it. Prolonged strenuous exercise can disrupt your hormonal balance which can impact ovulation. In fact, some studies indicate that five or more hours a week of vigorous exercise may lower your fertility by 32%
Nutrition for preconception is also really important. When preparing your body for pregnancy you should try to avoid trans fat and easily digested carbs. Your diet should focus on lean meats, wholegrains and plant based protein such as fruits and vegetables. Dairy products, such as low fat yoghurts, are also important for calcium and you should also try to eat zinc rich foods, including shellfish.
Boost your nutrients with vitamins and supplements
Whilst you should be able to get most of your nutrients from a healthy fertility diet plan in some cases it is necessary to take vitamins and supplements for fertility. Vitamin D and Folic Acid are particularly important to start taking as part of your preconception care. Folic acid should be taken way ahead of conception, as it plays an important role in the very early stages of your baby’s development. It is proven to help reduce the risk of Neural Tube Defects, which mainly occur in the first few weeks of pregnancy.
Vitamin D is thought to help fertility in numerous ways. Research has shown that it can ease symptoms of PCOS and endometriosis and also boost both egg and sperm production.
When should I start pre-pregnancy care?
There’s a general rule that you should start preparing your body for pregnancy around 3 months before trying to conceive. However, there are certain aspects of preconception care that may require for forward planning. If you are a smoker, it may take a few months for you to fully quit. Likewise, if you have an unhealthy weight or aren’t particularly active, it can take a while to get into a healthy routine.
Whether you are planning on pregnancy or not, it is advisable to make healthier life choices as soon as possible. This will not only improve your own personal wellbeing, but also means you will have a better starting block to go from if and when you decide to become a mother.
For more specific elements of preconception care, for example, taking folic acid and supplements, then 12 weeks before you start trying should be sufficient preparation.
Can my gynaecologist help me get pregnant?
It is always a good idea to consult your GP or gynaecologist if you are planning on trying for a baby. They can be important advisors of preconception planning and regular check ups help you stay aware of any issues that could arise. They will be able to help you make the best lifestyle choices, especially if you have any preexisting conditions that might make conception a little harder. Gynaecologists are able to advise on issues such as endometriosis, PCOS and abnormalities of the ovaries or uterus. When it comes to contraception, your gynaecologist will be able to explain how hormonal contraception might have affected your fertility and when is the best time to come off it.
Preconception care for couples
One of the biggest factors of preconception care might sound like the simplest – make sure you’re in a good supportive relationship. As a couple, making an active decision together about when to start a family is key. When both are invested in the pregnancy – or prospective pregnancy – it creates a safe environment. Women are less likely to be exposed to risky behaviours such as smoking and alcohol and a supportive partner will help them get proper prenatal care.
Partners of pregnant women, or those trying to conceive, should also be mindful of how their actions impact their partners health. They should try to quit smoking, or be sure not to smoke around their partner. People who work with chemicals or other toxins should be careful not to expose women to them. This is easily done by ensuring you change into new clothes once you get home, and washing uniforms separately.
Preconception care for men
There are many ways in which men can help improve their own reproductive health ahead of trying for a baby.
Sperm health is an important part of preconception care – around 50% of fertility cases are caused by male infertility. There are many ways that men can help improve their sperm count and health. Lifestyle changes such as quitting smoking and reducing alcohol intake are the first aspects that should be addressed. Smoking impacts the DNA in your sperm and reduces its ability to reach and fertilise eggs. Similarly, alcohol can also have a negative effect on sperm mobility and motility. Whilst you don’t have to give up drinking altogether, it is advisable to cut down on your units – especially if you are experiencing issues conceiving.
A man’s diet will also play a role in the quality of his sperm. Eating Vitamin B-12 rich foods such as meat and dairy protects your sperm from inflammation and oxidative stress.Vitamin C also contributes to a higher sperm count, so oranges and spinach are a great addition to your diet. A 2018 study found that regularly consuming hazelnuts almonds and walnuts, increases sperm count.
Your partner should also be sure to discuss their medical history with his doctor. Open lines of communication between you and your GP can help diagnose fertility issues and also help predict any medical conditions your baby may be vulnerable to.
Navigating preconception might feel daunting, but it doesn’t need to be. The Adia platform is full of information on nutrition and exercise and has fertility experts on hand to answer any questions you may have.