Here's how you can do right by yourself, your baby and the planet when you're pregnant.
Pregnancy, especially your ﬁrst, upends your life in unexpected ways. Motherhood looms and you're madly trying to ﬁgure out how to give your baby the healthiest start. So it's no surprise when you also ﬁnd yourself evaluating the health of the world your infant is about to enter.
"It's pretty universal, in my experience," says Gina Solomon, M.D., M.P.H., associate director of the pediatric environmental health specialty unit at the University of California, San Francisco, and senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, a nonprofit environmental action group. "Women are confronting some critical decisions when they're pregnant."
Here are five ways you can do right by yourself, your baby and the planet when you're pregnant.
1. Get Wise To Water
One of the first rules of a healthy pregnancy is to stay hydrated. "You need to drink for two while you're expecting," says Solomon. Your blood volume increases dramatically, and you're flushing two people's waste through your kidneys. Meanwhile, your fetus constantly swallows the amniotic fluid and pees in it. To keep "refreshing" that fluid, you need liquids throughout the day.
How to get them? Probably not from swigging lattes because caffeine is a real concern: Drinking more than 300 milligrams daily, or the amount in about two cups of java, has been associated with miscarriage in early pregnancy. Nor should you rely on diet sodas, which contain artificial sweeteners, or regular sodas and processed fruit juices, which are loaded with sugar calories.
Good old-fashioned water is best, and you shouldn't buy it in plastic bottles. Such water is seldom cleaner than tap, it's not as well-regulated, and some brands are municipal water with a fancy label. Worse, in the U.S., only a quarter of those bottles are recycled!
Moms-to-be are especially vulnerable to water-borne contaminants, however, and because no water is perfectly clean, you'll probably need a kitchen filter. But before you buy one, learn what's in your tap water. "City dwellers usually find that a carbon filter, such as a Brita or PUR pitcher or faucet attachment, is adequate," says Solomon. If you live in an area with serious water-quality problems, as in some rural regions, you may need a filter that can handle such pollutants as pesticides, solvents and arsenic. "Reverse osmosis devices work, but they're expensive and waste water, so check to see if they're necessary," Solomon says. Call your water utility, or visit its website for a look at its consumer confidence report (CCR). Read what it says under "detection" to see which contaminants are found in your water. Lead levels can vary dramatically from house to house, so you also might want to test for lead. For information on filters and testing, visit nrdc.org.
When you drink plenty of safe water:
YOU are less likely to suffer from constipation, fatigue, hemorrhoids and bladder infections. Being well-hydrated also prevents water retention.
YOUR BABY is exposed to fewer water-borne contaminants and toxins. Because dehydration can cause contractions, the risk of premature birth is lower.
THE PLANET will be less polluted, with fewer plastic bottles floating in its rivers and oceans.
2. Find The Fresh Stuff
At first glance, the ideal green diet looks simple: Choose what's organic, in season and locally grown. "But that's not always possible, especially if you're pregnant during winter in the Northeast," says Elizabeth Ward, R.D., author of Expect the Best: Your Guide to Healthy Eating Before, During & After Pregnancy (Wiley). "You need to strike a balance between saving the Earth and eating what's right for you and your baby." That means focusing on fruits, vegetables and grain products fortified with folic acid and iron, cutting back on processed foods and upgrading to environmentally sustainable foods when you can.
"There are tremendous benefits to eating organic foods during pregnancy," says Ward. They're grown without pesticides, and some studies even show they're higher in nutrients. Locally grown, seasonal foods may also be more nutritious, if only because they're fresher—and, the Earth also benefits, as fewer fossil fuels are used to transport them. But organic can be costly, and not everyone can get herself to a farmers market where local food is plentiful.
"It's better to eat healthy foods that are conventionally grown than to skimp on them because you're afraid of how they're produced," Ward says. "No prenatal supplement can supply the phytonutrients you get from fresh fruits and vegetables, even if they come all the way from Chile." Or you can go organic only for produce that otherwise would test high on the pesticide scale, such as apples, peaches and bell peppers.
Getting your daily protein in an eco-friendly way is another challenge. Many fish that are great sources of protein—and of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), one of the omega-3 fatty acids essential to fetal brain development—also contain mercury, a heavy metal that can endanger a fetus. Experts recommend you eat fish no more than twice a week; small, low-mercury species, such as salmon, sardines, mussels, anchovies and oysters, are best. Boost your omega-3s with other foods rich in fatty acids, including walnuts, canola oil and flaxseed, and with fish oil supplements or vegetarian supplements produced from algae.
Pay attention to your meat purchases. You can trust that certified organic beef and poultry come from animals that were raised on 100-percent organic feed and were never given hormones or antibiotics, but you'll pay more for the privilege, Ward says. Locally produced milk, meat and poultry are fine, as long as the dairy or farm has a reputation for cleanliness. Or you can cut back. Industrial-scale meat production contributes to 18 percent of the world's greenhouse gases—even more than transportation! If you limit meat consumption for health or environmental reasons, add more beans, legumes and nuts to your diet, along with eggs from locally raised chickens.
When you eat green:
YOU find it easier to keep your weight gain at the recommended level, which lowers your risk for gestational diabetes, high blood pressure and a too-big baby.
YOUR BABY is exposed to fewer pesticides and drug residues, a gift to his or her developing neurological system.
THE PLANET experiences less global warming, and fewer harmful, toxic chemicals used to farm conventionally grown foods will poison our natural world.
3. Ditch Your Car
With few exceptions, such as scuba diving, you should be able to continue to exercise as you did before pregnancy," says Raul Artal, M.D., chairman of obstetrics, gynecology and women's health at Missouri's Saint Louis University School of Medicine. But you're not excused if your pre-pregnancy workout was punching the TV remote. Previously sedentary women who start exercising while pregnant do just fine; and prenatal exercise is not only safe, it improves pregnancy outcomes, partly because it helps control weight gain.
Researchers say it's leisure-time activity that benefits pregnancy, not physical labor done at work. Gardening helps maintain flexibility and build strength; walking, running, swimming, hiking and biking boost aerobic capacity. "With any exercise that requires balancing, such as biking, there is risk of falling," notes Artal, a prenatal-exercise expert, so pay attention to your balance, which usually becomes an issue at about four months.
Unfortunately, American moms-to-be are largely on their own in the search for safe, convenient exercise venues. "If you look at Scandinavian cities, like Copenhagen, the bike lanes are wider than the car lanes," says Artal. "Some of our U.S. neighborhoods don't even have sidewalks."
Nevertheless, walking remains the perfect prenatal exercise—a moderate-intensity and low-impact activity that requires no equipment beyond good shoes. And it can be a gift to the planet when your stroll to the store replaces a car trip; a four-mile round-trip walk will keep about 15 pounds of pollutants out of the air. Some studies have found that if people nationwide got their recommended daily exercise by walking instead of driving, we could reduce our oil consumption by up to 38 percent. So once you've found your route, get outside regularly for a brisk walk. Sunshine will boost your vitamin D levels (very important during pregnancy), and believe it or not, outdoor air is less polluted than the air inside the average American home.
When you exercise:
YOU stay leaner, sleep better, have better posture and feel less stressed. You may suffer less morning sickness, fatigue, backache and joint and muscle pain, and your pregnancy is more likely to be complication-free.
YOUR BABY is less likely to be born too big and is more likely to be lean, have better cardiovascular function and show fewer signs of stress during infancy.
THE PLANET absorbs less global-warming carbon every time you walk or cycle in place of driving the car or using an electric-powered exercise machine.
4. Steer Clear Of Toxins
A glass of champagne may be verboten during pregnancy, and secondhand smoke annoying, but few of us would consider them full-fledged toxins. We would be wrong. "Tobacco is weirdly similar in its makeup to diesel exhaust," says Solomon, "and drinking alcohol produces some of the same birth defects as exposure to industrial solvents."
Changing your daily habits can prevent exposure to many common environmental hazards. A strong-smelling chemical, especially if it triggers morning sickness, is a red flag. "Listen to your body," says Solomon. "Stay away from concentrations of trucks and buses, and avoid such solvents as vapors from dry cleaning and gasoline." Because solvents are so easily absorbed and inhaled, ask your partner to pump the gas and visit the dry cleaner. Avoid home improvement projects that emit fumes from solvents, such as refinishers or glues; if you must paint, choose low- or non-VOC (volatile organic compound) paints and ask someone else to wield the brush. Most moms-to-be know that pesticides can be harmful, but "studies show that a surprising number apply them to their pets," says Solomon. "They'll use a flea shampoo on the dog or put a flea collar on the cat." Instead, she recommends, "Look for nontoxic shampoo, wash the pet's bedding in hot water and use a flea comb to check for pests."
Other hazardous chemicals include bisphenol A (BPA), a hormone disruptor found in plastics, the lining of food cans and even in the coating on sales receipts; and perfluorinated compounds, found in nonstick cookware, grease-resistant food packaging (such as microwave popcorn bags and pizza boxes), stain-resistant fabrics and personal-care products. Don't buy items like cleaning products or cosmetics that contain the ingredients "fluoro" or "perfluoro," and if you must use Teflon cookware don't heat it higher than 450° F, and discard it when it deteriorates. Avoid disinfectants or any cleaning products with such chemicals as formaldehyde—or with a label that warns: Keep out of reach of children. Even better: Make your own safe cleaners with vinegar, baking soda and lemon juice. Finally, keep your home and body as un-perfumed as possible. Air fresheners and conventionally scented cosmetics often contain chemicals that can alter hormones.
When you avoid toxic chemicals:
YOU reduce your risk for certain pregnancy complications and, later in life, cancer, thyroid, respiratory and other health problems.
YOUR BABY starts life with a lower "body burden" of industrial chemicals and has a lower risk for neurological problems. His or her risks for obesity, asthma, allergies and diabetes will be lower.
THE PLANET benefits because fewer toxins are being introduced into the air, soil and waterways. Meanwhile, as a consumer, you're pushing the marketplace to create cleaner and safer products.
5. Use Your Boobs
Whether to breastfeed may be the most important decision you make while you're pregnant," says Solomon. Study after study has found that breastfeeding is healthier for both mother and infant from the first latch through the length of their lives.
Your choice to nurse also takes a load off the planet's shoulders. The manufacturing of infant formula is an industrial process, and its distribution involves trucking nationwide. Canning the prepared formula requires the resource-intensive use of steel, and the cans may be lined with resin that can leach BPA into the formula. Powdered formula is safer, but you need to decide what kind of water to add. Some bottled waters contain phthalates or BPA, and depending on where you live, tap water may contain pesticides, disinfection byproducts or pathogens.
"Thank goodness we have formula because some women can't breastfeed," says Solomon, "but it's definitely a second choice. While it's important to acknowledge that mother's milk also contains some contaminants, the benefits of breastfeeding outweigh any potential hazard."
When you breastfeed:
YOU lose weight more easily, and lower your risk for postpartum depression and, later, breast and ovarian cancer.
YOUR BABY will be leaner and less prone to childhood obesity. Your infant is also likely to have fewer ear infections and some immunity from common bacterial and viral "bugs." Breastfed babies also have lower rates of diarrhea, digestive problems, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) and childhood leukemia.
THE PLANET absorbs fewer carbon emissions from the manufacture and transport of formula. Not as many discarded containers end up in landfills.
There's no better time than pregnancy to think about creating a healthier environment for your baby and yourself.