Are you thinking about getting pregnant? While it may sound romantic to simply toss your birth control and start trying, you’re better off talking to your OBGYN or midwife first. Your provider can tell you what to do to help make your body pregnancy ready. You can also learn how to reduce your baby’s risk for several serious birth defects. Below is some of the key advice I give patients contemplating parenthood:
- Take folic acid early
Folic acid reduces the risk of brain and spine defects, but it’s critical to take it before your baby’s neural tube starts forming. That happens before you even know that you’re pregnant. To make sure you have enough folic acid in your system, take at least 400 micrograms daily, three to six months before trying to have a baby. Folic acid is found in leafy greens and citrus fruit and is part of any prenatal vitamin.
- Consider testing for genetic diseases
While you may not have any signs or symptoms, you may be a carrier for a serious genetic disorder. If you are, screening allows you to make an important decision: Either move ahead with conception knowing the risks or take steps to avoid passing a disease on. Adoption, in vitro fertilization (IVF) with donor eggs or sperm, and IVF combined with preimplantation genetic testing are options for couples at risk of having a child with a genetic disorder. Carrier screening is available for cystic fibrosis, hemoglobinopathies, spinal muscular atrophy, fragile X syndrome, sickle cell disease, and Tay-Sachs disease, among others.
- Check your vaccination status
German measles (rubella) and chickenpox (varicella) are two diseases you particularly want to avoid during pregnancy. German measles can cause miscarriage, stillbirth, and severe birth defects. Chickenpox can lead to pneumonia and other complications in pregnant mothers. Unborn babies exposed to chickenpox have a higher risk of scarring and birth defects. Make sure you’ve been vaccinated against these diseases before becoming pregnant. Your doctor can order a blood test to confirm your immunity. If you do need a shot, you’ll want to avoid getting pregnant for at least four weeks.
- Review your health conditions and medications
Because pregnancy can make symptoms worse, you’ll want to make sure your current health conditions are under control before conceiving. High blood pressure, hyperthyroidism, diabetes, depression, and eating disorders are a few of the concerns that can affect women in their 20s and 30s. Your doctor can review any medications you are taking and discuss their risks and benefits with you. Some women can stay on their prescriptions while others may need to switch or come off of certain drugs for a while.
- Aim for a healthy weight
Even though you’re signing yourself up to gain pounds when you become pregnant, it’s best to start at a healthy weight. Women who are overweight can have more trouble getting pregnant and are more likely to have pregnancy complications such as preeclampsia and gestational diabetes. Contracting gestational diabetes increases your risk for developing diabetes later in life, so it’s important to try to avoid it. On the flipside, being underweight can also make it harder to become pregnant and can increase the risk of having a preterm baby or a baby with a low birthweight. Your doctor can help you come up with a plan to achieve the healthiest weight for your body.
- Examine your diet
You deserve meals that healthy and nourishing—and so does your future baby. Eating the right foods may even help some women increase their chances of getting pregnant. Take a close look at your diet. Is it filled with fruits, vegetables, and whole grains? Will it help you maintain a healthy weight throughout your pregnancy? Learn what to eat if you’re planning a pregnancy—as well as what to avoid.
It’s always better to prevent pregnancy issues from happening than to fix problems after they occur. If pregnancy is on the horizon for you, check in with your OBGYN or midwife about what you can do to get you and your baby off to the healthiest start.
Dr. Flynn La Rochelle is a board-certified OBGYN at Vancouver Clinic. She believes in partnering with her patients to provide compassionate, evidence-based care.