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A Healthy Beginning for Pregnancy

Why managing your health, your weight, and your habits is so important before conception.
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WebMD Feature

It's been your dream, giving birth to a healthy, happy baby. Pregnancy is as natural as the birds and bees, but in today's world it takes planning to make sure things go well.

If you've been taking your health for granted -- getting by on little sleep, hitting the martini bars, forgetting dental exams -- it's time to assess your lifestyle and make some changes.

To give your baby the healthiest beginning, take steps in the months before you conceive, says Connie Graves, MD, director of maternal-fetal medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tenn. "You want to start with a very healthy body, and you want to minimize risk factors that can hurt the baby or hurt you."

By making healthy lifestyle changes, you may even boost your odds of getting pregnant. "One of my patients just had her third child at age 42," Graves tells WebMD. "She's a perfect example that maintaining a healthy lifestyle will help preserve fertility and assist conception."

Pregnancy: The Critical First Weeks of Life

By the time you learn you are pregnant, your baby is probably 2 to 4 weeks old -- a tiny placenta and embryo attached to your uterine wall. During these critical weeks, your baby's development can be greatly affected by health and lifestyle issues like:

  • Folic Acid: It's long been known that folic acid prevents the serious birth defect called spina bifida (a baby born with a spine that is not closed). Fortunately today many food items, such as bread, bagels, and breakfast cereal, are fortified with folic acid to help women of childbearing age reduce risk of this birth defect.

  • Alcohol and smoking: Alcohol has been linked to premature delivery, mental retardation, birth defects, and low-birth-weight babies. Smoking can decrease the likelihood of conception -- and increase the risk of preterm labor and low birth weight.

  • Over-the-counter and prescription drugs could also affect your baby's health. For example, during the last few months of pregnancy NSAIDs -- such as aspirin, aspirin compounds (Anacin, Bayer, Bufferin), and ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil) -- can cause a decrease in the amount of amniotic fluid (the fluid cushioning the baby) and cause closure of the ductus arteriosa, an important blood vessel in the baby.

  • Illegal drugs have their own risks. Cocaine use, for example, can be detrimental and life-threatening to both mother and baby.

  • Gum disease can increase the risk of preterm delivery up to eightfold, research shows. Babies born to mothers with periodontal infections are twice as likely to be admitted to a neonatal intensive care unit, and three times more likely to need hospitalization beyond seven days, the CDC reports.

Obesity, Diabetes, and Your Baby

Obesity is an especially critical issue for women of childbearing age, says Michael Greene, MD, director of obstetrics at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

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