This factsheet is for women who are planning to have a baby, or for anyone who would like information on how to prepare for pregnancy. It also includes information for men who plan to become fathers.
Being fit and healthy maximises the chances of a healthy pregnancy. By the time you have missed your first period, you are two weeks pregnant. So, it's best to prepare for a pregnancy before trying to conceive, and to follow the advice that is given to pregnant women.
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Published by Bupa's Health Information Team, April 2010.
If you're planning a pregnancy, you will need to think about stopping the contraception you have been using. You may worry that some methods of contraception will make it difficult to get pregnant, however most women's normal level of fertility and periods return very quickly.
You will regain your normal fertility quickly when you:
- stop using barrier methods of contraception, such as the condom and diaphragm
- stop taking the contraceptive pill
- have a contraceptive implant removed
- have an intra-uterine device (coil) removed, including one that releases hormones
When is the best time to conceive?
More than eight in 10 couples who have regular sexual intercourse and don't use contraception will conceive in the first year of trying for a baby. Having sex every two to three days is the best way to conceive. Trying to time intercourse with ovulation (when an egg is released from your ovary each month) can put both you and your partner under stress and this is unlikely to help you conceive.
If you've been trying for a baby for a year without getting pregnant, you and your partner should see a doctor. If you are over 35 or you have infrequent or no periods, visit a doctor sooner.
If you smoke or you're underweight or overweight (BMI less than 18.5 or over 25) you're more likely to have trouble conceiving. Try to lose weight, if you need to, before you become pregnant - it's important not to diet to lose weight when you're pregnant.
Eating a healthy diet before pregnancy means that your body has adequate stores of vitamins and minerals. A nutritious, well-balanced diet includes:
- plenty of fruit and vegetables (at least five portions per day), which provide vitamins and fibre
- starchy foods such as potatoes and whole grain cereals, bread and pasta
- protein such as lean meat, fish and pulses
- dairy foods such as milk and yoghurt, which supply calcium
Pregnant women can become anaemic, so make sure you eat plenty of iron-rich foods. These include red meat, pulses, fortified breakfast cereals, dried fruit, bread, and green vegetables.
A well-balanced and varied vegetarian diet should provide all that you need, but you may find it harder to eat enough iron and vitamin B12. It's a good idea to speak to a doctor or another healthcare professional about ways to increase your intake. Also ask for advice if you are on a vegan or any other restricted diet.
There are certain foods that you shouldn't eat pre-pregnancy because they put you at risk of food poisoning or may harm the baby if you do become pregnant. These include:
- liver and large quantities of vitamin A in supplements such as fish liver oils
- unpasteurised dairy products
- raw or soft-cooked eggs
- patés, including vegetable paté
- soft cheeses such as brie or camembert
- blue cheeses such as stilton or roquefort
- swordfish, marlin and shark
- any more than two tuna steaks (170g raw) or four tins of tuna (140g drained) per week
Folic acid (one of the B vitamins) is the only pre-pregnancy vitamin supplement that women who are eating a balanced diet need to take.
You need folic acid for the development of healthy red blood cells. Adequate intake of folic acid also reduces the risk of your baby being born with a neural tube defect, such as spina bifida. The neural tube develops very early in pregnancy, during the first few weeks after fertilisation. At this point, you may not have even realised you're pregnant.
It's important that you start taking folic acid supplements as soon as you start trying for a baby or realise you are pregnant. The recommended dose is 400 micrograms (0.4mg) daily, which you should take as well as meeting the recommended intake of 200 micrograms in your diet. Good sources of folic acid include fresh dark green vegetables such as broccoli, peas, brussel sprouts and chick peas. Many breakfast cereals are fortified with folic acid and it's also found in wholemeal bread.
A higher dose of 5,000 micrograms (5mg) of folic acid is recommended for women who have previously had a baby with a neural tube defect, are taking medicine for epilepsy, or have diabetes, thalassaemia or coeliac disease. If you have a family history of neural tube defects, then you should also take the higher dose. Speak to a doctor about folic acid before trying for a baby if any of these apply to you.
Advice for fathers
Smoking and drinking alcohol can affect the quality of sperm, so men should stop smoking and drink no more than three to four units of alcohol per day. Men should also try to maintain a BMI of less than 29 because being overweight can reduce fertility. There is a link between increased scrotal temperature and reduced sperm quality, so it might be a good idea to wear loose-fitting underwear, although it's uncertain whether this will improve fertility.