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Pregnancy health centre

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NHS Choices Medical Reference

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Depending on how healthy your lifestyle normally is, when you become pregnant you may need to make changes to your diet, drinking habits and the amount of exercise that you do. You will also need to ensure that you are up-to-date with all of your required vaccinations and screening tests.

To ensure that your pregnancy goes as smoothly as possible, and that your baby is as healthy as possible, it is important that you take good care of yourself while you are pregnant, and follow the self-care guidelines outlined below.

Diet

While you are pregnant it is important that you maintain a healthy, balanced diet that includes food from all of the main food groups. This will help both you and your baby to stay healthy during your pregnancy. You should aim to eat:

  • at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day
  • four to six portions of carbohydrates each day, such as rice, pasta, potatoes, cereals and bread
  • at least one portion of pasteurised dairy products a day, such as cheese, milk and yoghurt
  • three portions of protein from foods such as meat, fish, eggs, poultry and pulses

You should also make sure that you drink plenty of fluids each day (at least two litres) because this will help your body to get rid of toxins, as well as preventing nausea and constipation. Water and fruit juices are good choices.

When trying to get pregnant, you should avoid eating swordfish, shark and marlin. It is also advisable to limit how much tuna fish you eat to two tuna steaks or four medium-sized cans of tuna a week. This is because these types of fish contain high levels of mercury, which can potentially harm the development of a baby's nervous system.

See the Health A-Z topic on Diet for more information and advice about eating a healthy, balanced diet.

Food hygiene

Your GP and midwife can give you information about food hygiene and how to avoid bacterial food infections that could harm you or your baby. Salmonella and listeriosis are two common bacterial food infections. You should avoid eating:

  • soft cheeses, such as brie and blue-veined cheese (there is no risk with processed cheese, cottage cheese or hard cheeses such as cheddar)
  • vegetable or meat paté
  • any food that could contain raw or partially cooked eggs, such as mayonnaise
  • raw or partially cooked meat, particularly poultry

Toxoplasmosis is an infection that is caused by undercooked or uncooked cured meats, such as salami, from contaminated soil or water, and from the faeces of infected cats. It is an infection that could potentially cause problems for your unborn baby.

Folic acid

Taking folic acidsupplements before and during pregnancy can reduce the risk of your baby being born with a neural tube defect (NTD). Neural tube defects, such as spina bifida, adversely affect the growth and development of your baby's brain and spinal cord.

You should take 0.4mg (400 micrograms) of folic acid daily if you are trying to conceive, and you should continue to take it until your 12th week of pregnancy, while your baby's spine develops.

Folic acid supplements are available over the counter at pharmacies. As well as taking folic acid supplements, you can also add foods that are high in folic acid to your diet, such as green leafy vegetables and breads and cereals.

You have a higher risk of having a baby affected by a NTD if:

  • either you, or your partner, has a NTD
  • you have had a previous pregnancy affected by a NTD
  • you have coeliac disease (a condition that is caused by a sensitivity to gluten)
  • you are diabetic
  • you are taking antiepileptic medication

If you have a high risk of having a baby with a NTD, a higher daily dose of folic acid may be recommended. In this case, your GP or midwife will be able to recommend an appropriate dose of folic acid for you.

Alcohol

Drinking alcohol while you are pregnant can harm your unborn baby. Binge-drinking during early pregnancy is thought to be particularly harmful. Heavy drinking during pregnancy is associated with low birth weight and many other serious birth defects, such as heart problems and delayed development.

It is best to avoid drinking any alcohol if you are planning a pregnancy. You should also avoid drinking alcohol while you are pregnant. If you are trying to conceive, you may be unaware that you are pregnant until several weeks into the pregnancy, so you should stop drinking alcohol before any damage can be done.

If you want to drink alcohol while pregnant, to minimise your baby's risk do not have more than one or two units, once or twice a week. One unit of alcohol is approximately equal to one small glass of wine, half a pint of ordinary-strength bitter or lager, or a pub measure (25ml) of spirits.

It is important never to get drunk while you are pregnant. If you feel you are unable to reduce your levels of drinking on your own, you should visit your GP who will be able to refer you to a specialist for help.

Caffeine

Consuming too much caffeine during pregnancy can lead to your baby having a lower than normal birth weight. It can also increase your baby's risk of developing health problems later in life and may also increase the chances of miscarriage (losing the baby during the first 23 weeks of pregnancy).

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) recommends a maximum daily intake of 200mg of caffeine during pregnancy. As a guide, 200mg is equivalent to:

  • two mugs of instant coffee
  • one mug of filter coffee
  • two mugs of tea
  • five cans of cola
  • four (50g) bars of plain chocolate (caffeine in milk chocolate is roughly half of that in plain chocolate)

You should check with your pharmacist before taking any cold-and-flu remedies because some of them contain caffeine.

Exercise

Regular, moderate exercise is highly recommended for most pregnant woman. Exercise can help boost your energy levels, and keeping in shape will help to prepare for labour by increasing stamina and muscle strength.

Thirty minutes of moderate exercise a day - for example, swimming or walking - is recommended for most pregnant women. Your GP or midwife can advise you further about specific types of exercise that are appropriate for you.

Sports such as scuba-diving and any activities that put you at risk of falling, such as horse-riding, are not recommended while you are pregnant because they may put the baby's development at risk.

Body weight

Before becoming pregnant, you should try to get as close as possible to the ideal weight for your height and build.

If you are overweight or obese you should try to lose weight before trying to conceive. Women who are overweight or obese are more likely to need a Caesarean section (where the baby is removed through an incision in the abdomen), and they are at higher risk of having a stillborn baby.

Overweight or obese women also have a higher risk of developing pre-eclampsia, a condition where pregnant women develop high blood pressure (hypertension), as well as protein in their urine and fluid retention. Pre-eclampsia is usually mild, but in rare cases it can cause serious harm to the mother and growth problems in the unborn baby.

You are overweight if your body mass index (BMI) is between 25 and 29.9. You are obese if your BMI is 30 or more. To find out your BMI, use the healthy weight calculator.

Visit your GP if you are overweight or obese and you are planning to become pregnant. They will be able to advise you about the most effective and safest way to lose weight.

Vitamin A

Avoid taking vitamin A supplements while you are pregnant because they may cause abnormalities to develop in your unborn baby. Also avoid eating liver because it is high in vitamin A.

Over-the-counter medications

Wherever possible, avoid using over-the-counter (OTC) medicines while you are pregnant. This is because not all OTC medicines have been proven safe for pregnant women to use. Check with your GP or pharmacist if you are unsure.

If you need pain relief while you are pregnant, or if you have a high temperature, paracetamol is usually recommended at the lowest possible effective dose. Depending on the stage of your pregnancy, ibuprofen may also be recommended.

For more information, see Can I take ibuprofen when I'm pregnant? (Common Health Questions).

Complementary medicines

It is not advisable to take complementary medicines while you are trying to conceive, or while you are pregnant. Many complementary medicines are unlicensed, and there is not enough evidence to confirm that they are safe for both you and your baby.

For more information, see Are complementary therapies safe during pregnancy? (Common Health Questions).

Advice for men

Many of the recommendations above also apply to men.

Medical Review: March 28, 2010

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