Trying to get pregnant? Make sure you know the bottom line on baby-making—what you don't understand can affect your bub-to-be's health.
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You may think the healthy pregnancy to-do list is like a potato-chip craving: never-ending. But it's not. Aside from eating well and exercising—two topics that are so important we've covered them elsewhere in this issue—there are only about five things you really need to do to increase your chance of having an enjoyable pregnancy and a healthy baby.
1. Say "no" to toxins. Because of their link to birth defects, miscarriage and other problems, you should avoid tobacco, alcohol, illicit drugs and even solvents such as paint thinners and nail polish remover while pregnant. Smoking cigarettes, for example, decreases oxygen flow to your baby; it's linked to preterm birth and other complications. "If you can't stop smoking, drinking, or using drugs, let your doctor know," recommends Roger Harms, M.D., an OB-GYN at the Mayo Clinic. A doctor can offer advice and support, as well as refer you to a program like the "Great Start Quitline" (866-66-START), which helps pregnant women stop smoking.
2. Watch what you pop. Check with your doctor or midwife before taking any over-the-counter medications, supplements or "natural" remedies. Even nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen should be avoided—studies suggest they increase the risk of miscarriage and damage to fetal blood vessels. Also limit caffeine, which is difficult for a fetus to metabolize, to 200 milligrams, or about two cups of coffee, per day.
3. Pay attention to your feelings. You've probably heard of postpartum depression, but you may not know that 10 percent to 20 percent of women experience symptoms of major depression during pregnancy, according to the March of Dimes. This could increase your risk for preterm labor. If you're feeling unexplainably sad, angry or guilty, or if you lose interest in activities you usually enjoy or sleep too much, tell your doctor. Therapy, a support group, an antidepressant medication or a combination of the three will likely help. Not all antidepressants are safe for pregnant women, so be sure to work with a doctor who is familiar with pregnancy-related mental health issues. To search for a prenatal/postpartum support organization in your area, visit postpartum.net.
4. Wash up. Frequent hand washing can protect you from infections such as Group B streptococcus, Fifth disease, cytomegalovirus and chickenpox, all of which can cause birth defects and other severe complications for your baby. Ethyl alcohol-based hand sanitizers are a great option for those times when you can't get to a sink. "They protect users from most of the communicable infections," says Anjan Chaudhury, M.D., an OB-GYN at St. Elizabeth's Medical Center in Boston.
5. Put yourself first. It may sound selfish, but things like getting enough sleep, practicing relaxation exercises and saying "no" to exhausting commitments are important right now. Such self-nurturing acts are all the more vital if you're dealing with a job loss, family death, moving, divorce or other major life event, because very high stress levels may contribute to preterm birth or low birth weight. Aim for eight hours of sleep each night, lie down for a nap when you're fatigued, take up meditation or prenatal yoga, and make it a priority to spend time with supportive friends and family members.