Woman taking a pregnancy testWe often hear or read about what women should or should not do to promote a healthy pregnancy and prevent problems during labor or after the child is born. However, one of the key timeframes in which to consider changing behaviors is the period before conception.

Studies show that certain behaviors can have a positive—or negative—impact on a woman’s body’s predisposition to get pregnant or have a healthy pregnancy. We also know that some external influences can affect pregnancy, although more research is being conducted (such as the recently launched National Children’s Study) to gain a better understanding about the effects of these factors. The following practical tips will guide you so you can change behaviors on your journey to motherhood, avoid dangerous external factors, and get ready to conceive a healthy child.

1. Start prenatal care before you get pregnant.

Schedule an appointment with your ob-gyn and/or midwife for a check-up before you conceive. This will give her a chance to identify and treat any issues there may be.

2. Don’t eat for two; nourish for two.

There is usually some misconceptions about what women should eat before and during pregnancy. It is about eating more quality products, not about eating more quantity. This means that you should increase your intake of foods with high nutritional value and decrease the amount of food with unhealthy fats and simple sugars. The foods you eat today can get stored in your body and become building blocks for your baby tomorrow. For example, dioxins are toxic chemicals found in animal fat; the more animal fat you consume, the more dioxins you accumulate in your body. You can reduce your total body store of dioxins by reducing the consumption of saturated fats, trans fat, and partially hydrogenated oils. If you wait until you are pregnant to change your eating habits, however, you will not be able to eliminate dioxins in your body. Nonetheless, it is important to eat well during pregnancy to ensure your baby is getting all the right nutrients.

3. Eat more brain foods.

Brain foods are those that can help your future baby grow a healthy brain. These include beans, eggs, nuts and seeds, olive oil, Alaskan wild salmon (or any other cold water oily fish), yogurt and kefir, whole grains, spinach, collards, kale, broccoli, prunes, raisins, blueberries, oranges, red bell peppers, and tomatoes.

4. Avoid toxic foods.

Toxic foods are those that can cause harm to your health and your future baby. These include:

  • Swordfish, shark, king mackerel and tilefish—they contain high levels of mercury.
  • Products made with unpasteurized milk—these products may carry bacteria that cause a disease called listeriosis, which in pregnancy can cause miscarriage or stillbirth, premature delivery, or infection of the newborn. Most supermarkets only sell dairy made from pasteurized milk, so just make sure that the products you buy clearly state that.
  • Hot dogs, luncheon meats, deli meats, raw or smoked seafood, raw or undercooked meat—these meats can also contain the bacteria that cause listeriosis.
  • Unwashed vegetables, raw vegetable sprouts and fruits, including juices—unwashed vegetables can carry and spread certain disease-causing microscopic organisms including those that cause toxoplasmosis.
  • Liver; which contains high amounts of vitamin A.  Excessive intake of Vitamin A can cause birth defects.
  • Saturated fats and trans fats; partially hydrogenated oils; added sugars (e.g. high-fructose corn syrup) and refined flour.

5. Take your vitamin.

You should take a multivitamin with at least 400 micrograms of folic acid everyday. Folic acid has many benefits and one of them is preventing spina bifida or anencephaly. It is preferable to take a multivitamin over folic acid alone because other vitamins and minerals are also important for a healthy pregnancy.

6. Achieve a healthy weight.

Being underweight or overweight puts you at risk for a number of pregnancy complications. It’s important to achieve a healthy weight before you get pregnant. Set realistic goals and timeline for yourself. Once you’ve achieved your goal, you should try to maintain a stable weight for at least 3 to 6 months to allow the body to adjust to your new before attempting to conceive.

7. Learn to relax.

One of the best things you can do to get ready for pregnancy and parenting is to learn how to prevent or reduce stress. There are techniques you can practice—deep breathing, progressive relaxation, mindfulness exercise, and transcendental meditation—to help you relax. A positive mental health and a strong network of social support, including your relationship with your partner, will help you stay resilient through the stresses of pregnancy and parenting.

8. Tune up your immune system.

Infection and inflammation pose perhaps the biggest threats to a healthy pregnancy, and the best defense is to strengthen your immune system, which you can do by reducing saturated fats and trans fats from your diet and increasing your intake of whole grains, fruits and vegetables that are loaded with anti-oxidants.

9. Detoxify your environment.

Many common household products—certain air fresheners, antibacterial soaps, cosmetics, deodorants, and detergents, just to name a few – contain potential reproductive and developmental toxic byproducts. Ask your ob-gyn which of the products you use you should replace.

Dry cleaning can also be dangerous if you are thinking of becoming pregnant. Most dry cleaners use a chemical called perchloroethylene (or perc), which has been linked to certain conception and pregnancy issues. You can reduce your exposure to perc by avoiding chemical dry-cleaning whenever possible, making sure the car is well ventilated on the way home from the dry-cleaner, and removing the plastic bags and air out your dry cleaning outdoors before storing them.

10. Help your man get ready.

Men contribute about half of the baby’s genetic materials, which are carried in their sperm DNA. Their sperm DNA can get damaged in a lot of different ways: tobacco, alcohol, drugs, caffeine, diet, medical conditions, environmental toxicants, etc. The good news is that men continue to make new sperm, which means that, if they take good care of themselves for three months, they can replace a lot of the damaged goods with healthy sperm. You can help you man get ready by encouraging him to go see his doctor for “preconception care.”

Michael C. Lu, MD, MPH and Associate Professor of OB/GYN and Public Health and lead investigator for the Los Angeles-Ventura Study Center of the National Children’s Study. He is the author of Get Ready to Get Pregnant, published by HarperCollins.