Top 10 Tips for a Healthy Pregnancy

Pregnancy is the time to take the best care of yourself, both physically and mentally, to be sure you deliver a healthy baby. See more pregnancy pictures.
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During pregnancy, few subjects will become as important as your physical and emotional well-being. Not only will you visit your obstetrician with startling regularity and frequency, but -- perhaps to your surprise -- your growing midsection may also become the topic of polite conversation as those around you become more and more interested in how you're doing.

Along with all the changes you'll experience, your health (and by association, your baby's health) deserves to be protected and nurtured during this unforgettable time. But once you discover that nearly everything you do affects your baby, you'll probably feel a lot of pressure to get it right and ensure you carry a healthy baby to term.

Cautionary tales aside, pregnancy can pack joy, fear and excitement into a nine-month time frame. While you're busy getting prepared, embarking on a renewed exercise routine or kicking your caffeine craving, be sure to carve out some "zen-like" time for you. After all, making time for yourself is all part of preparing for parenthood.

So, as you ponder pregnancy -- or your due date -- here are 10 tips you'll want to peruse. Wondering just how to get prepped for pregnancy? Read on to learn about an action plan.

10
Get Prepared

Ideally, preparing for a baby begins at least three months before conception. Why so early? The better your health, the healthier your baby is likely to be.

Visiting your obstetrician is one of the first steps in planning a healthy pregnancy. During your appointment, you'll discuss your family and personal health histories, as well as any medications you are taking [source: DHHS: Preconception]. Your physician should make sure your vaccinations are up to date, particularly rubella and chicken pox, which are live-virus vaccines and should not be given during pregnancy [source: Brundage].

Expect a few recommendations for lifestyle changes, too. If you live with a housecat, you'll be advised to give up litter box duties. There is a parasite in cat feces that can cause toxoplasmosis -- an infection that can be life-threatening to developing babies. For this same reason, you'll be cautioned to wear gloves while gardening and avoid eating undercooked meat.

You'll probably receive a prescription for prenatal vitamins or recommendations for an over-the-counter version that will adequately provide the nutritional boost your body needs. Keep in mind that not all multivitamins are equal: You'll need at least 400 micrograms of folic acid taken daily at least one month before conception and continued through the natal and postnatal periods [source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention].

Your preconception planning should include a visit to the dentist to make sure your teeth and gums are in good health. Mounting evidence suggests periodontal disease makes women more likely to have a preterm or low birth weight baby [source: American Academy of Periodontology].

9
Don't Overmedicate

Although pregnancy can be exciting, it also prompts a bevy of physical and emotional changes. Reaching for a bottle of ibuprofen is no longer the simple act of a woman in search of headache relief. Everything you ingest, including medication, affects your developing baby. When a medication enters your bloodstream, it passes through the placenta and enters your baby's system, too.

Which medications are safe during pregnancy? There are no easy answers. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration labels the safety of prescription drugs, ranging from antibiotics to antidepressants, according to the following system: A, B, C, D or X [source: FDA: Information]. Your doctor will help determine which medications are recommended during pregnancy.

In general, Category A medications have not shown any risk to the fetus. Category B medications, which include ibuprofen, also are not believed to pose a risk to the fetus. Category C medications may cause complications for a baby in utero but haven't really been studied in people. Category D medications, which include chemotherapy agents, present distinct health risks but may still be used in some instances. Category X drugs are known to cause birth defects and should never be used during pregnancy [source: Greenfield: Medications].

Over-the-counter medications require similar scrutiny. Get your physician's approval before taking them [source: DHHS: Medicines]. And, if you think herbal or homeopathic remedies are safer, remember these substances still pass through the placenta and affect your developing baby. When in doubt, ask your doctor.

Wondering how to fuel a healthy pregnancy when you're green to the gills? Find out, next.

8
Eat Your Veggies

During pregnancy, what you eat and drink is the primary source of nutrition for your baby. Stock your refrigerator and pantry with nutrient-rich foods to ensure you are getting the boost you need during pregnancy, namely -- B6, B12, iron, calcium and folic acid.

You should start in the produce section. Bananas and whole grains, rich in vitamin B6, encourage red blood cell formation. Sweet potatoes have vitamin A for growing bones. Spinach and salmon are full of calcium, which helps prevent bone loss during your pregnancy and aids the growth of your developing baby's bones [source: KidsHealth.org]. Don't like something on this short list of "power" foods? Don't worry. There are plenty of substitutions to get the nutrition you need.

If you think swallowing a prenatal vitamin every day has your nutrition needs covered, think again. Your body -- and your baby -- simply needs more nutrition than a single vitamin can offer. For example, you won't receive the recommended daily allowance of calcium from a prenatal vitamin alone. Why? If it were included, the pill would be too big to swallow [source: March of Dimes: Multivitamin]. While your prenatal vitamin supplies extra folic acid and other nutrients to help prevent birth defects, be sure to eat a complementary diet to boost your baby's growth and protect your own health.

Which foods can pose a health risk to your baby? Next, we'll uncover a few dangerous ingredients you should avoid.

7
Steer Clear of Dangerous Ingredients

Your first prenatal checkup may not take place until you're well into the first trimester, yet this period is when crucial developmental milestones take place [source: Brundage]. Knowing this, you'll want to steer clear of potentially toxic ingredients. Many dangerous ingredients lurk in common foods. You'll want to avoid foods that could be contaminated with Listeria, a bacteria that can cross the placenta and cause miscarriage [source: U.S. Department of Agriculture]. Unless they are made from pasteurized milk, imported soft cheeses such as brie, camembert and feta are on this list. Raw eggs, fish, poultry, beef and pork shouldn't be ingested, either.

Staying away from raw meats usually isn't difficult for a pregnant, often queasy, woman. But when you're hit with a craving for sashimi or homemade ice cream (which often contains raw eggs), it can be easy to forget the risks [source: Harms]. Other foods, such as certain types of seafood, may contain high levels of mercury and should be eaten with rarity [source: March of Dimes: Avoid].

You should also avoid alcohol and cigarette smoke. Both substances cross the placenta and may cause harm [source: Kaiser Permanente]. Coffee consumption, however, gets mixed reviews. Although caffeine goes right into your baby's bloodstream, many women continue to drink coffee during pregnancy. In small amounts, caffeine appears to be OK. A 5-ounce cup of coffee has about 180 milligrams of caffeine, so a cup a day shouldn't cause too much concern [source: Organization of Teretology Information Specialists].

6
Give in to Cravings

Pickles? Ice cream? How cliché! For many pregnant women, however, these and other cravings rich in fat, sugar and salt are reality. Before you're overcome with guilt at the thought of fueling your baby's growth with potato chips, take note: It's OK to indulge a few cravings as long as you've eaten a balanced diet first.

Maybe your craving leaves you wondering whether you're lacking a certain nutrient. The answer is a resounding "maybe." The next time you reach for a bag of pretzels, your body may be craving the additional sodium it needs to balance extra fluids caused by pregnancy. In contrast, your craving may be unrelated: A woman who crunches ice cubes may actually have anemia -- a condition ice cubes do nothing to assuage [source: MedicineNet].

For the most part, cravings are harmless. But if you begin to yearn for non-food items, trouble's afoot. Eating items such as chalk, charcoal, dirt or toothpaste signals a condition known as "pica." Although researchers suspect it may be triggered by your body's lack of a certain vitamin or mineral, this condition can be harmful to you and your baby. Not only can these non-food items be potentially toxic or contain parasites, they may reduce your body's -- and your baby's -- ability to absorb nutrients from food you should eat [source: American Pregnancy Association].

Exercise can take your mind off cravings and help alleviate a number of complaints. Read on to find out how and why to stay mobile.

5
Keep Moving

Not only is it safe (once you get the "go ahead" from your doctor) to exercise during pregnancy, it's a good idea. A solid 30 minutes of exercise every day can help reduce backaches and constipation -- two common pregnancy complaints. It may also help you sleep better and boost your posture and mood, two things that tend to wane as pregnancy progresses.

Working out during pregnancy promotes muscle tone and strength, helps you cope with labor pain and allows you to bounce back after pregnancy [source: American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists]. Exercise, especially the kind that includes fresh air, may even help ease morning sickness [source: Cram].

Some exercises, such as walking, yoga, swimming and low-impact aerobics, are ideal even for beginners. Activities such as running may be safe for baby and mom, but only if you were already doing them on a regular basis before becoming pregnant, and you still might need to modify the workout [source: Butler]. The key to exercising safely, regardless of your pregnancy fitness level, is to know the signs of overexertion. Read on to discover what to watch for.

4
Don't Overdo It

When you're pregnant, life doesn't stop. By the time you overcome the fatigue commonly brought on by the first trimester, you might feel ready to take on the world. Plus, you've also got extra incentive: A deadline that arrives in just a few months.

This may prompt you to tackle hobbies and projects you've delayed until now. The good news is that keeping your mind and hands busy can calm pre-parenthood nerves. You'll also have a sense of accomplishment as you cross things off your pre-baby to-do list.

Although there's nothing wrong with an extra project at work or home, you'll want to find a pace that suits your pregnancy. It's important to know when you're on the verge of overdoing it -- physically or mentally. If you start feeling dizzy or faint, then stop and rest. This is a sign that your body needs more oxygen-rich blood because it can't keep up with your activity.

Some huffing and puffing is normal as your lung space makes way for baby's new home. An inability to catch your breath, however, is a different story. This means you should ease your activity level. And, if your heart rate goes above 140 beats per minute, rest until it returns to normal [source: Mayo Clinic].

Making sure you get enough sleep can go a long way toward fueling your daily activities. On the next page, find out some tips for getting some shut-eye.

3
Sleep Easy

Pregnancy fatigue often takes a brief reprieve during the second trimester and then returns (often with a vengeance) in the third trimester. You'll need at least eight or nine hours of sleep to have enough energy to get through the day [source: Stokes]. It may help to take a nap, even if it's only for 20 minutes during your lunch hour.

Ironically, although you may yearn to spend the first trimester of pregnancy in bed, by the time you hit the third trimester, it becomes more difficult to sleep comfortably for long stretches of time. If you once slept on your stomach, you must now figure out how to rest in another position. Lying on your left side optimizes blood flow to you and your baby. Try propping a pillow between your knees to support your ever-widening pelvis and place one near your belly for extra comfort [source: Silva].

If you really can't sleep at night -- what with the extra trips to the restroom and the heartburn -- try resting more often during any 24-hour time frame. Napping on your lunch hour, after work and during the nightly news will add up. It also can ease your mind, which may help you rest better at night, too.

2
Calm Common Complaints

Sure, there's a lot to be thankful for during pregnancy. Heartburn and the dozen other inconveniences most women experience, however, aren't on this list.

Heartburn may strike anytime during your pregnancy, but it's more likely to occur as your belly grows. An abundance of the hormone progesterone delays digestion and loosens the valve that once kept your stomach acids from creeping up your esophagus. To battle heartburn bouts, eat small meals and stay upright for an hour after you leave the table. If heartburn bothers you at night, use pillows to sleep in a reclined position. Over-the-counter medications for heartburn are usually OK, but you should check with your doctor to be sure [source: Greenfield: Heartburn].

Pesky leg cramps may become more prevalent during the second and third trimesters. There are a number of reasons for the increased frequency, from mild dehydration to the baby putting pressure on spinal nerves. The good news is that with a bit of forethought, you can help prevent these muscle cramps. Stretching your legs is a good pre-emptive measure, but don't point your toes because it can trigger a cramp. Exercise (even leisurely strolls) should help. Massaging your legs, taking a warm bath or using a heating pad may also provide some relief [source: March of Dimes: Changes].

If you're bothered by back pain, then ditch the heels, buy a supportive mattress and keep your posture in check. Beating back pain requires many minute adjustments throughout the day and night. Don't hunch over your keyboard, and make sure stretch your muscles now and then [source: Livermore].

1
Zen, Baby
Taking time to relax during pregnancy is key to keeping you and your baby healthy.
Taking time to relax during pregnancy is key to keeping you and your baby healthy.
David Young-Wolff/Getty Images

Nine months may seem to stretch on forever when you're anxious to meet your baby, but the delay also allows time to ease into your new role as a parent. If you are stressed -- about pregnancy, birth, your work life and the inevitable adjustments that take place within your extended family -- it can affect your baby. Constant or sudden stress can cause premature labor because it releases a contraction-triggering hormone. Chronic stress can result in a weakened immune system for you and a low birth weight for your baby [source: Prior].

How much stress is too much? It's a hard call. Navigating the demands of career and family can be difficult, but for some women, leaving a deadline-oriented job for months of pre-baby resting can be just as stressful. It's all in how you cope with it.

If you're often anxious, confused or tearful, then it's time to ask for help. In the long run, learning to manage stress during pregnancy is good practice for parenthood. Learn how to prioritize, cultivate a support network and make a conscious effort to relax, whether through prenatal massage or simply some quiet "me" time. You'll be well on your way to a balanced life as a new mom.

Learn more about pregnancy by visiting the links on the next page.

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