The first step in getting pregnant should be taken months before you're ready to begin trying.
"I encourage my patients to give me about a three to six month notice," says Dr. A. Jay Staub of Health Central Women's Clinic (HCWC) in Dallas, Texas. "They need to come in, preferably with their [significant other], to talk about their desire to get pregnant so we can talk about any health issues that might arise."
A healthy pregnancy begins with good habits, so doctors will advise moms-in-the-making to avoid alcohol, cigarettes and illicit drugs. In addition, some medications for health conditions may need to be changed, and additional vitamins - particularly folic acid - likely will be recommended.
"Some medications are safe during pregnancy, while others can cause birth defects," adds Dr. Alan Greenberg, also of HCWC. "Before you become pregnant, it's good to look at any health problems you might have, how they're being treated and how they might affect the pregnancy."
The old school of thought, in which women visited their doctors after becoming pregnant, no longer applies.
"It used to be that you didn't worry about it until you were pregnant. Now, women need to start changing their habits at least a month before becoming pregnant."
Since women usually don't know that they're pregnant for at least a month, Dr. Greenberg often has patients confess concerns over having had a few drinks in the early weeks of the pregnancy. Changing those habits beforehand can offer peace of mind.
"It's much easier than worrying about it throughout the entire pregnancy," he says.
Fit for motherhood
Exercise and nutrition plays a big role in the pregnancy.
"The better shape you're in, the better off you're going to be throughout the entire pregnancy," Dr. Greenberg points out. "During pregnancy you're carrying a lot more weight and it gets harder to breathe. Someone who isn't in good shape is going to experience a lot more back pain than someone who has already been working those muscles."
Women who exercise will also get a payoff in the delivery room; during the second stage of labor, they tend to have more endurance and won't become as exhausted while pushing the baby out. As a rule, they'll also have a quicker recovery time after the baby is born.
"In many cases, we're talking about a complete lifestyle change," he says. "If people aren't willing to do that, they have a risk of having bigger babies, as well as being at risk for diabetes, high blood pressure - and they'll have more weight to lose at the end of the pregnancy."
History loves company
Knowing your own personal health history, as well as your family history, plays an important role in planning a healthy pregnancy. Dr. Greenberg says couples should check with their families to see if any hereditary disorders are present. In addition, conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, thyroid problems and epilepsy will need to be addressed and medications taken into consideration as women prepare to become pregnant.
Women will also want to be tested to see if they are immune to rubella - if not, they'll need to get a vaccination prior to becoming pregnant. It's also recommended that women who have not been exposed to chicken pox are vaccinated for it, as chicken pox during pregnancy has been linked to birth defects.
"The best thing you can do for a healthy pregnancy is to talk it over beforehand with your doctor," says Dr. Greenberg. "Go over the do's and don'ts of what can and can't be done during pregnancy. Most doctors are willing to do that if the patient brings it up. If you're thinking of getting pregnant, bring it up with your doctor and he'll be able to help you with any concerns."
Hints for a healthy pregnancy
1. Make sure you're in the best shape you can be in - exercise and eat right!
2. Talk to family members and get a complete history of your family's health.
3. Avoid alcohol, cigarettes and illicit drugs.
4. Eat right, take extra folic acid (4 mg is recommended) and take your vitamins. Note: Intake of Vitamin A should be limited to 7,000 units per day.
5. Evaluate your work environment. If it's not what your doctor recommends, talk with your boss about what changes can be made.
6. Make sure you're immune to rubella (measles) and chicken pox - if not, get vaccinated.
7. Limit the amount of fish you eat, as it contains traces of mercury that may harm an unborn baby's developing nervous system.