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Taking Care of Your Body

Clean Up Your Act Before Conception

Kick the Habits

"Short of an occasional glass of wine periodically, you should not be drinking, and you should never be smoking," says Dr. Robert Stillman, medical director of Shady Grove Fertility Centers in the Washington, D.C., area. "Not only do they have a profound effect on maintaining a healthy pregnancy, but most women don't know they can have a profound effect on the ability to conceive, too."

During pregnancy, smoking can cause low birth weights, premature labor and miscarriage, and heavy drinking is one of the leading known causes of mental retardation in the U.S. Studies haven't proven how much alcohol is enough to cause problems -- although the numbers are getting more conservative -- so doctors suggest that it's better to be safe than sorry and eliminate alcohol consumption entirely, especially during the first 12 weeks. By quitting alcohol and nicotine early, you also avoid the unpleasant task of battling withdrawal symptoms and morning sickness at the same time.

As for caffeine, researchers are less clear about its effects on pregnancy, but since large amounts have been suspected of contributing to miscarriage and low birth weight, doctors suggest playing it safe and limiting yourself to one or two cups per day.

A Father's Place

A father-to-be should be thinking about his role in contributing to a healthy pregnancy, too, although the list of hazards is significantly shorter than his partner's.

In most cases, the risks are associated with reduced fertility, not complications during pregnancy, says Zinaman. "Even chemotherapy hasn't been shown to cross through the seminal plasma into the woman and the pregnancy." (One exception to this is passive smoking: A fetus can be adversely affected by a father's smoke.)

Men trying to help conceive a child should cut back on smoking and drinking -- or quit altogether -- a few months before the attempt, since both substances can reduce sperm levels. Certain medications, like antihypertension blood pressure drugs, also can affect fertility. Pesticides, dry cleaning solvents, paints and lead can also cause problems, although actual risks are unlikely since environmental and occupational safety regulations typically prevent exposure to dangerous levels, Zinaman says.

"The bottom line is that women and men have a responsibility in terms of deciding when to get pregnant and then keeping themselves in a healthy condition. It's not just something that happens to you and you'll deal with it," says Joyce Thompson, a preconception expert and director of the nurse midwifery program at University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing.

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