Preparing for pregnancy

Any young family and prospective parents want to know how to best PREPARE their bodies before, during and after pregnancy in order to give their children the best nutritional start possible.

It is essential that prior to conception both parents ensure that they are in optimum health. So much emphasis is placed onto the woman's health whereas both parents need to be in great shape. The mother's nutrition prior to pregnancy has a profound effect on her reproductive efficiency. The father's nutrition can affect the quality and motility of the fertilising sperm.

Ideally bodies should be prepared before conception, ensuring the correct dietary intake, exercise and losing any excess weight. The body’s needs for good nutrition increase when it goes through the changes involved in pregnancy and lactation/breastfeeding.

It is important for women who are planning to become pregnant to obtain between 800 to 1000 mcg of Folic Acid per day to reduce the risk of neural tube defects such as spina bifida. Supplementation with folic acid must occur before conception as the neural tube is developed within the first two weeks of pregnancy.

Pregnancy is one of the most nutritionally demanding times in a woman's life. Nutritional requirements are higher during pregnancy to support the rapid growth and development of the foetus and replace the depleted nutritional reserves of the mother.

Proper ante-natal care coordinated by a midwife or physician is advisable in promoting optimal health and well-being of the developing infant and mother.

Nutritional Influences

  • A diet consisting of nutrient rich foods coupled with proper supplementation can help guard against dietary deficiencies during pregnancy. More calories, protein, vitamins and minerals are needed to support the nutritional demands of both mother and baby.
  • Folate (folic acid) plays a crucial part in the development of the central nervous system during the early weeks of foetal development.
  • Iron needs to increase due to a higher blood volume and the demands of the foetus and placenta. Iron requirements vary between individuals, it is recommended that pregnant women receive an individual assessment of their iron status, nutritional guidance, ante-natal care and iron supplementation as needed from their health care provider, to decrease the risk of poor pregnancy outcome.
  • Iodine is an essential mineral needed for proper thyroid function. During pregnancy the placenta will extract iodine from the mother. Foetal levels of iodine are usually several times higher than those of the mother. A maternal iodine deficiency can cause significant irreversible mental retardation in the foetus.
  • Low maternal zinc levels have been associated with low infant birth weight
  • Newborns from a selenium deficient mother can suffer from muscular weakness. Australia and New Zealand have almost no selenium in the soil and so supplementation with selenium is recommended.
  • Women need additional protein to support tissue growth in the foetus, placenta and maternal tissues
  • Vitamin D is needed for foetal growth, bone ossification, tooth enamel formation and neonatal calcium homeostasis.
  • The mother's diet should contain extra calcium from the beginning of pregnancy until the end of lactation. Early accumulation of calcium provides a reserve for later use when it becomes difficult to consume enough to meet the needs of both mother and baby. Numerous studies have shown that calcium supplementation can reduce the incidence of pregnancy induced hypertension.
  • Magnesium levels decrease during pregnancy. There is also evidence that magnesium levels are further decreased in women who later develop pre-eclampsia. Oral magnesium supplementation is also therapeutic in treating pregnancy related leg cramps.
  • Pyridoxine (B6) is an important coenzyme in the biosynthesis of the neurotransmitters GABA, dopamine and serotonin. It is required for normal perinatal development of the central nervous system. Studies show that a neonatal deficiency of B6 can cause behavioural abnormalities, motor disorders and low birth weight.

A Guide for Good Nutrition during Pregnancy and Lactation.

Good nutrition means eating the correct foods, those containing lots of vitamins, minerals, proteins, etc. During pregnancy, the need for certain nutrients increases after the first three months. In particular, extra iron, calcium, protein, folate and vitamin C are needed. However only a slight increase in calories (kilojoules) is needed.

When breastfeeding, nutritional requirements are actually greater than during pregnancy. The body needs to call on its reserves to produce milk for the baby, so diet is very important.

Research has shown that essential fatty acids are also important for the developing baby. It may be a good idea to supplement with Omega 3 and 6 during pregnancy. Before taking any additional or different supplements, discuss them fully with your Doctor, as it is important to protect the growing baby.

In the modern world it is very difficult to meet all the body's needs through diet. We know that free-radical damage is a major cause of degenerative disease and we know that antioxidant vitamins and minerals can help us combat that damage.

When choosing nutritional supplements ensure that they meet the GMP (Good Manufacturing Practices). That the products are laboratory tested and guaranteed to meet USP specifications for quality, potency and disintegration, where applicable. Plus ensure the company is registered with the FDA as a pharmaceutical manufacturer.

Deborah Moore is a Lactation Consultant, Registered Nurse, Registered Midwife, has a Certificate in Child and Family Health, and a Diploma in Community Health.