Each woman arrives at a new pregnancy from a different starting point. One woman may have planned for months to get pregnant, taking vitamins, eating healthy, and exercising. Another might be classified as medically obese and is worried about how that will affect her pregnancy—should she lose weight or focus only on eating healthy? While yet another may have, not intending or wanting a pregnancy at the time, been drinking heavily or using illicit drugs. Of course, most women are somewhere in the middle. Ultimately it’s most important that a woman work at getting as healthy as possible, so that she and the baby have the best outcomes.
So how does a woman who is already pregnant get healthy and stay healthy? And what are the risks if she isn’t healthy?
Lets look at the central tenets of a healthy pregnancy:
Eating right helps to build a strong and healthy baby, and it helps the pregnant mom as well. A healthy diet can help to prevent high blood pressure, preeclampsia, gestational diabetes, and premature labor. A healthy diet can help to ensure against the baby growing too big, which could lead to a difficult birth.
Earlier this past year, we outlined a healthy diet for pregnancy. Be sure to eat plenty of protein and whole grains, and focus on color and variety in your fruits and vegetables during pregnancy. Good sources of protein include meats (limit seafood because of the high mercury content in many sources of seafood), dairy, eggs, nuts, beans, and seeds. And the less processed and milled the grains, the better. Drink plenty of water and salt to taste. Eat small, nutritious meals often. And, most of all, limit sweets and high-sugar-content food and drink.
A good prenatal vitamin is important for a healthy pregnancy as well. Prenatal vitamins are specially formulated for a pregnant woman’s needs. In particular, the pregnant woman needs at least 400 mcg of folate (higher if a BMI over 30) and Vitamin D. Folate in the first trimester helps the baby’s developing nervous system and strengthens the mom’s immune system. Vitamin D also helps with the mom’s immune system and helps the baby to develop strong bones and teeth before and after the birth. Vitamin D can be continued postpartum and can help to decrease the risk of postpartum blues.
What if a woman has a high BMI when she finds out she’s pregnant? There is no evidence that dieting to lose weight is good for mom or baby. In that case, she should focus on the healthy pregnancy diet, balancing the pregnancy needs for quality protein, whole grains, and plenty of fruit and vegetables. Many women who struggle with weight before pregnancy discover that eating healthy for the pregnancy helps them to maintain a healthier weight during and after the pregnancy. Most moms-to-be who have a higher BMI at the start of pregnancy can expect to enjoy a healthy pregnancy.
Exercise helps the pregnant woman prepare for birth by strengthening and toning her body. It can also help to manage weight, and, combined with a healthy diet, can lower the risk of giving birth to a large baby. The adage is that if a woman already has a regular exercise practice, she can continue the practice. But, if the mom is new to exercise, low-impact exercise with a gradual endurance plan is just as beneficial.
The shift in the woman’s center of gravity and increase in joint laxity can make exercise more challenging. Water sports, such as swimming or low-impact water aerobics, can help support the pregnant woman’s body. Mild exercise in general can help the woman meet the greater oxygen demand that pregnancy creates. However, too aerobic of an activity can decrease her oxygen consumption and lower her overall oxygen volume. Ultimately, exercise can make pregnancy more comfortable and shorten the woman’s labor, and even reduce the need for interventions.
Exercise can also:
- Reduce back aches
- Reduce constipation, bloating, and swelling
- Boost energy levels
- Help with mood
- Help with sleep
- Prevent excess weight gain
- Promote strength and endurance, which in turn helps the mother in childbirth
If the pregnant woman hasn’t exercised in awhile, but would like to add an exercise routine during pregnancy, she should start slowly, beginning with five minutes and building her endurance by five minute increments until she reaches a thirty minute practice.
What exercise should be avoided during pregnancy? Some forms of exercise are not advisable, such as:
- Exercise that forces you to lie flat on your back after the 1st trimester
- Scuba diving, which puts the baby at risk of decompression sickness
- Water skiing, surfing, and diving, which cause you to hit water with a great deal of force
- Contact sports such as ice hockey, basketball, volleyball, or soccer
- High altitude exercise (less oxygen for you and the baby—and risk of altitude sickness, which causes headache and nausea)
- Any activity that could cause direct trauma to the abdomen, like kickboxing
- Hot Yoga or Pilates
- Sports with a high risk of falling, such as downhill skiing, gymnastics, or horseback riding at fast speeds
A regular exercise practice during pregnancy can lead to an exercise practice postpartum, which can help the new mom shed weight and regain muscle tone and strength for her non-pregnant body. Exercise should be avoided for the first month while the woman establishes breastfeeding and recovers from the birth.
In addition to prenatal counseling with a maternity care provider, there are several ways a pregnant woman can educate herself about pregnancy and childbirth:
Childbirth education (CE) classes
CE classes can help the pregnant woman stay focused on pregnancy-specific issues, such as nutrition, lifestyle practices, and preparation for childbirth. Some options for childbirth education classes include: Hypnobirthing, Birthing From Within, Bradley, Lamaze, Birthworks, Centering Pregnancy, Sacred Pregnancy, and others. Local doulas and midwives often have extensive lists of local childbirth education providers, and some midwives offer childbirth classes at birth centers and in their communities.
Books are a powerful way for the pregnant woman to prepare for birth and to learn coping mechanisms for the changing nature of pregnancy. Some favorites include: Spiritual Midwifery, Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth, Diary of a Midwife, Birth Without Violence, Birth with Confidence, and Homebirth Cesarean. There are also literary memoirs about pregnancy and birth, and pregnancy loss that can be powerful and impactful narratives, depending on a mother’s perspective and needs.
Documentaries about pregnancy and childbirth often include interviews with experts, snapshots of individual women’s labors, and commentary on an overall maternity care system. Documentaries, if appropriate, can help children understand an upcoming birth and help pregnant women (and couples) make decisions about what they most want from the birth experience. Some of the better documentaries include The Business of Being Born, Orgasmic Birth, The Face of Birth, Birth Into Being: The Russian Waterbirth Experience, and Pregnant in America. Check out this TED talk by Ina May Gaskin, the international childbirth luminary midwife.
Rhea Dempsey writes about the “circles of influence” that surround the pregnant woman—from friends and family to the wider culture. These circles ultimately impact the woman’s pregnancy and birth experiences.
The people with whom the pregnant woman surrounds herself make a big difference in how healthy, physically and emotionally, the woman will be during pregnancy. The following are important questions to ask:
- Is the pregnant woman’s home a safe place?
- Does she have emotional support?
- Is she more concerned with the anxieties and fears of her mother, her sister, her husband, her friend, than her own?
- Is the pregnant woman able to decide how and where she wants to birth based solely on her needs and wants?
- Is her maternity care provider supportive of her wishes?
- Can she ask questions without fear of belittlement or of her fears being minimized?
- Does she have access to healthy food and clean water?
A healthy pregnancy hinges on physical elements such as a safe place to live, the opportunity to exercise, access to healthy food and clean water, and good prenatal care, but it also hinges on emotional health, and support is central to a pregnant woman’s emotional health. Support often means more listening than talking, and support means something different for every woman. And, ultimately, after pregnancy, the birth is most about the woman and her baby, not the people who surround her. Sometimes the best support is the most minimal support, support that allows the woman to decide how she wants to birth and who she wants to support her during the birth.
Getting healthy during pregnancy will mean something different for each woman. For instance, a woman who struggles with alcohol and drugs may need to first focus on addiction recovery. After she is clean and sober, she can move on to good prenatal care and nutrition, as well as creating a circle of support that is healthy and best for her and the baby. For a woman who doesn’t have good nutritional habits, getting healthy may mean focusing solely on nutrition and exercise. And for a woman who lives in an unsafe home, getting to safety may be the first step toward a healthy pregnancy.
Focusing on the main tenets of a healthy pregnancy will help a woman get healthy and stay healthy throughout pregnancy, with great benefits to both mother and baby.