Moms-To-Be, Make It a Good Habit

First-trimester health practices affect your whole pregnancy, researchers find.

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Nothing may show at your waistline, but what happens at the very beginning of pregnancy is more important than previously realized, according to Dutch researchers in findings published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

"The assumption has been that since there was as yet no placental connection, the mother couldn't influence fetal health, for example by smoking," says Dennis O. Mook-Kanamori, M.D., M.Sc., of Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam. But looking at the first weeks of 1,631 pregnancies, the researchers found links between slow fetal growth and the mother's habits and health, including smoking, insufficient folic acid consumption, high blood pressure and above-normal levels of red blood cells (often seen in smokers). When early fetal growth is restricted, risks increase for preterm birth and low birth weight.

About half of U.S. pregnancies are unplanned, so these late-pregnancy complications may be determined before you even realize you're expecting. This knowledge can be overwhelming, but it offers an opportunity for a healthier outcome. Eating a good diet, taking folic acid supplements and avoiding cigarettes are important choices whether you are pregnant or hoping to conceive, says Mook-Kanamori. "Women have the health of the child in their own hands in the first trimester."

For most women, the first 12 or so weeks of pregnancy are the most consuming because everything is all so new, so exciting, even overwhelming. To satisfy the little voice inside your head that keeps asking questions, check out our All About the First Trimester primer and keep it handy whenever you have questions. —Shari Roan