Jackie Hall, Registered nurse and midwife and operations manager of AXA Health's Health at Hand team

8 ways to prepare yourself for a healthy pregnancy

1 March 2021

Keeping fit, eating well, not smoking and watching your weight will greatly increase your chances of getting pregnant, having a trouble-free pregnancy and a healthy baby.

"The best time to work on improving your health is before you conceive," explains our Health at Hand registered nurse and midwife, Jackie Hall. Here are some tips to help you get you in peak condition for pregnancy.

1. Aim for a healthy weight

“There’s evidence to suggest that losing weight if you’re overweight can increase chances of conceiving and having a healthy pregnancy – both for you and your baby. The best time to do this is before you get pregnant. If you need help, speak to your GP or Practice Nurse about courses or programs that are available. Don’t try and lose weight while you are pregnant as this can be dangerous and make sure you attend all your antenatal appointments,” says Jackie. “Your partner’s sperm count may also be affected if he is very overweight.”

2. Eat a balanced diet

"Eat a healthy balanced diet. There’s no need to ‘eat for 2’, you don’t need more calories than normal. Being overweight can increase your risk of developing complications such as pre-eclampsia (a type of high blood pressure that develops in pregnancy) and gestational diabetes - conditions which can harm you and your baby."

A healthy, balanced diet includes carbohydrates, lean proteins, at least five portions of fruit and vegetables daily, two portions of oily fish weekly, dairy products and whole grains. The NHS’s “Eatwell Guide” has some good information about diet if you want to know more.

3. Get regular exercise

‘How much exercise you should do during pregnancy depends on your pre-pregnancy levels of fitness and what you are used to doing,’ says Jackie.

‘Pregnant women should stay active. Walking helps the blood circulate. Swimming is a good all-over body muscle toner and some people find that yoga techniques can help them to manage labour.’ Avoid high impact or extreme sports. Exercise with caution at high altitudes.

Research published in Science and Medicine in Sports and Exercise journal suggests that there are benefits (such as fewer caesarean sections) for previously sedentary women if they start moderate exercise in pregnancy – including brisk walking, swimming etc.

Abdominal and pelvic floor exercises can help with muscle tone and help to reduce back pain and pelvic discomfort later in your pregnancy. Avoid doing exercises lying flat on your back as the weight of your bump can restrict the blood flow of certain vessels and make you feel faint.

A note for dad: If you’re struggling to conceive, a study by the Harvard School of Public Health suggests that exercise can boost sperm count.

4. Take a daily 400mcg folic acid supplement

Folic acid (also known as vitamin B9) can significantly reduce the chance of your baby developing a neural tube defect (NTD) such as spina bifida. The UK has the highest level of NTD in Europe affecting up to 1.5 in 1000 births.

The Department of Health recommends starting a daily supplement while trying to conceive and continuing to taking this dose throughout the pregnancy as this can not only help reduce the risk of neural tube defects but is also known to have a positive impact on a child’s cognitive development too. If you didn't take folic acid supplements before getting pregnant, start taking them as soon as you know you’re having a baby.

5. Take regular Vitamin D supplements

The Royal college of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in June 2014 published a Scientific Impact Paper that showed that Vitamin D is essential in pregnancy as it it can not only assist in the development of the baby structurally and physically but can also benefit the pregnant woman by reducing risks of pre-eclampsia, glucose intolerance in pregnancy and also reduce the risks of caesarean section as a result of complications in Pregnancy.

It is recommended that women should take 10 micrograms daily throughout the pregnancy, but this amount may be increased and prescribed specifically by Obstetricians  if the pregnancy or woman has health complications present.

6. Cut down on alcohol

The Chief Medical Officers for the UK recommend that if you're pregnant or planning to become pregnant, the safest approach is not to drink alcohol at all to keep risks to your baby to a minimum.

This doesn’t mean total abstinence, so don’t feel guilty if you indulge in the odd glass of wine with dinner. You just need to be sensible, especially during the first trimester.

Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol in pregnancy can lead to long term harm for the baby with the risk increasing the more you drink.

If you are concerned about how much you drink, speak to your GP. See our articles for tips on how to cut down your alcohol intake.

7. Cut down on caffeine

Try to limit yourself to two cups of instant coffee (no more than 200mg of caffeine) daily. Drinking too much caffeine has been linked to miscarriage and low birth weight in certain studies. But there’s an upside, consuming less caffeine has many benefits, such as better sleep, which you’ll appreciate more and more as the baby grows, and here are some great caffeine alternatives to help you if you’re feeling sluggish.

8. Quit smoking

Smoking is linked to miscarriage, stillbirth, low birth weight and premature labour. It is always a good idea to quit smoking and it’s never too late. Expecting a baby is the perfect motivation to live a healthier life. The NHS has excellent resources online and your GP will be able to help too.

Finally, while you may feel excited or overwhelmed (or both) remember that pregnancy is not an illness – the vast majority of mums and babies in the UK don’t need much intervention. It is also normal, with the hormonal and lifestyle changes that pregnancy entails, for your mood to vary a little. However, if you feel that your mood has persistently deteriorated don’t hesitate to speak to your midwife, practice nurse or GP. If you have a question about your mental or physical health you can also ask our team of Health at Hand nurses, who are available 24/7.

Early Years Support from AXA Health

At AXA Health, we understand that becoming a parent – and a family – is a life-changing event, which at times we may not feel fully prepared for.

That's why we've developed our Early Years Support Service for anyone embarking on becoming a parent, by birth or through a fostering or adoption process, however many times you may have ‘been there’ before!

Available through our Health at Hand team, the Early Years Support Service has registered midwives and nurses at the end of the phone for you or your family to talk to, day or night, 365 days a year*.

We're here to provide medical information and support, whenever you need us. So if you’re looking for some reassurance or just a friendly chat, or if you have questions about anything from pregnancy, delivery, the postnatal period and adapting to parenthood, to negotiating the early developmental stages, planning for the future, returning to work or even extending your family further, call us on 0800 003 004. Or if you prefer you can contact us by email via our Ask the Expert service and one of the team will get back to you. 

*Availability of specialist support:

Nurses and counsellors are available 24 hours a day, every day.

Midwife and pharmacists services available 8am to 8pm Monday to Friday, 8am to 4pm Saturdays and 8am to 12pm Sundays. Call backs can be arranged.

We will transfer members to our counselling service as appropriate.

If you have a specific question, you can ask our experts here.

Further information

Diet and nutrition hub - AXAHealth

Fitness and exercise hub - AXA Health

Spina bifida association  

Start4Life - NHS

Health pregnancy - NHS

British Medical Journal Prevention of neural tube defects in the UK: a missed opportunity (Accessed 25 February 2021)

Planning another pregnancy - NHS

Mental health - AXA Health

New mums research - Mynewsdesk

References

BMCMedicine  17, Article 196 (2019) Effective of Continued Folic Acid Supplementation beyond the first trimester of pregnancy on cognitive performance in the child: a follow up study from a RCT (FASSTT Offspring trial) Helene McNulty, Mark Rollins et al.

RCOG Scientific Impact Paper No.43 June 2014  Vitamin D in Pregnancy  Dr S Robinson, Prof C Nelson- Piercy et al

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