Our lifestyle – our habits, hobbies, daily behaviour, our environment – all influence our health. During pregnancy, this also has an impact on the unborn baby. Knowing this, it is worth for parents-to-be to think about their lifestyle and how it might affect the growing child and what they can do to change it to guarantee the best start in life for their baby.
The maternal diet influences the development of the babies before they are born and plays a role in shaping their long-term health until adulthood.
A balanced diet not only containing mainly fruit and vegetables but also carbohydrates (such as whole grain products or potatoes), protein-rich foods such as fish, dairy products and meat, and drinking plenty of fluids are recommended for pregnant women.
Certain types of food and drinks should be totally avoided during pregnancy:
- raw animal products
- drinks containing quinine (e.g. in bitter lemon)
- sugary drinks
- snack products and foods with high sugar or fat content
There are certain nutrients that are very important for the baby’s development.
Folic acid is important for the development of the baby’s nervous system. Experts recommend that women should take folic acids tablets (containing at least 400 micrograms of folic acid) to supplement their diet from two months before conception up until at least the end of the third month of pregnancy to prevent spina bifida (“split spine”).
A sufficient iodine supply during pregnancy is necessary for the development of thyroid hormones and the baby’s brain development. Iodine is found in saltwater fish, milk products or table salt with added iodine. A daily supply for pregnant and breastfeeding women of about 100-150 micrograms iodine is recommended.
Almost one third of all women of child-bearing age are iron-deficient. Iron deficiency during pregnancy may lead to health complications in the newborn, a low birth-weight or preterm birth. Iron deficiency can be prevented by eating a healthy, varied diet. Iron is mainly found in red meat, but also in various vegetables (such as beetroot) and whole grain products.
The vitamin D intake of a pregnant woman directly determines the vitamin D intake of the baby. The sunlight absorbed by our skin promotes Vitamin D uptake. Women who are rarely exposed to sunlight or who mostly cover their skin or use sun cream as protection against the sun’s rays, as well as those with a darker skin tone, should take 800 IU vitamin D supplements during their pregnancy.
Vegetarian and vegan diet
A vegetarian diet including the consumption of milk products and eggs can sufficiently nourish pregnant women. If fish does not belong to a vegetarian food source, however, a supplement of at least 200-300 microgram omega-3 fatty acid DHA is recommended. For a vegan diet, a comprehensive supplementation of necessary nutrients such as Vitamin B12 is necessary to protect the baby’s health and development. The maternal diet should be individually monitored and advised by a healthcare professional.
Nutrition after birth
Breastmilk is the best nourishment and even more: Breastfeeding protects against infections and supports the development and long-term health. Breastfeeding mothers should continue having a daily supply of 100-150 microgram iodine and 200 mg omega-3 fatty acid DHA (if eating oily saltwater fish twice a week is not possible).
Alcohol consumption during pregnancy can have serious implications for the baby. Experts suspect that a range of factors in addition to the volume consumed are responsible for the harmful effects of alcohol.
When alcohol enters the bloodstream of the unborn child and impedes its brain development, the child may be born with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD). This disorder has a wide range of symptoms. For example, the physical and intellectual development of these children often lags behind their peers. They have behavioural problems, sleep disturbances, eating disorders, and are restless and fidgety. Children with FASD are easily distracted and tend to have lower intelligence. As teenagers, they tend to display aggression, suffer from depression and have difficulty forming bonds. However, the symptoms can present with varying degrees of severity in children; some FASD children also have normal intelligence but show behavioural problems. Such “mild” cases often go undetected.
FASD – 100% preventable
FASD is 100% avoidable simply by not drinking alcohol during pregnancy. Experts advise to cut out alcohol completely while pregnant. This includes as well eliminating sweets and other food products that contain alcohol.
The same rule applies while breastfeeding—for as long as babies drink breast milk they consume everything that the mother does.
Non-medicinal drugs harm the development of the fetus severely and should not be consumed during pregnancy.
The negative effects of smoking are immense. On average, couples who smoke take longer to conceive than non-smokers. Also smoking in men affects both the quality and quantity of sperm production and can even lead to infertility.Pregnant women who smoke have fewer blood vessels in their placenta, impairing the supply of oxygen and nutrients to the unborn child from the very beginning of pregnancy.
Smoking during pregnancy is proven to increase the risk of miscarriage, double the risk of a preterm birth, reduce the baby’s chances of having a normal birth weight, and also delays the development of lung maturity in the womb. Smoking is also associated with an increased risk of malformation, stillbirth and sudden infant death (SIDS). Research shows that quitting smoking immediately is beneficial at any point during pregnancy. However, cutting down gradually or “weaning” off cigarettes has been proven to be ineffective while further harming the fetus.
Smoking about two cigarettes a day means that the baby will smoke about 560 cigarettes before being born (2 cigarettes multiplied by altogether 280 days of pregnancy = 560). If the mother smokes about 10 cigarettes per day, the baby will end up with the toxins of about 2500-3000 cigarettes inhaled before entering the world.
Smoking while breastfeeding is just as harmful as the toxic chemicals in tobacco smoke are carried through the breastmilk to the baby.In addition, passive smoking is a health risk for the baby, and may even play a role in sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Today, tobacco smoke is the most harmful type of indoor air pollution. It contains the same poisonous, carcinogenic substances as the smoke that is inhaled directly. Some components of smoke take a long time to break down. Small particles of these substances lodge on walls, ceilings, floors, clothes and furnishings, and are then released into the air again from there and where they are inhaled.
After having a cigarette, smokers should change their clothes and wash their hands (and possibly also hair) before having physical contact with a pregnant woman or a newborn.
It is worth to get help to quit smoking. Any mother who manages to quit smoking means a great success to the health of the baby.
During pregnancy the changing hormones can cause acne, fatty skin and hair. An intensified skin care with a soapfree washing lotion and an adequate skin lotion afterwards can help to take care of the dry skin.Hormones may also cause the darkening of freckles and facilitate a stronger pigmentation of the facial skin, chloasma uterinum, which can be prevented by an effective skin protection. Hyperpigmentation on the nipples and genitalia may disappear after pregnancy, just as the “linea negra”, which is a dark pigmented line crossing vertically the belly. Birth marks or moles, however should be carefully watched, especially, when they change their size or structure.
The fast change in weight sometimes causes the skin to tear. Violet stretch marks, later turning white, stay on the skin and do not disappear again after pregnancy. Well-tended skin with plant oils or lotions may be more resistant to stretch marks. From week 13, skin massages can also be helpful. They facilitate the blood circulation and help the skin to cope with the strains.
Bath or shower?
The question of whether to take a bath or a shower during pregnancy may arise. Both options are possible. The skin, however, dehydrates more during bathing and bathwater that is too hot can harm the unborn child. A quick shower in the last weeks of pregnancy should be more suitable because a hot bath could cause preterm contractions.
Regular physical activity during pregnancy is good for the mother as well as for the baby. There are many psychological and physical benefits that the pregnant woman will notice: an improved cardiovascular function, a lower pregnancy weight gain, less muscle cramps and limb oedema as well as a higher mood stability. It also helps preventing tiredness, headache, backache, and constipation. Weight-bearing exercise is even associated with a shorter labour and a lower risk of delivery complications and caesarean section.
Physical activity can help women with gestational diabetes to control their blood sugar levels and may also prevent pregnant women from developing gestational diabetes.
Physical activity is also associated with a higher stress tolerance of the baby and an improved neurobehavioural maturation.
As a rule of thumb, during exercise it is important to feel well. Contact sports with sudden stops are not recommended as well as sports where the mother can get easily hit or fall. As the pregnancy progresses, a gentler approach to sports is mostly naturally taken. Swimming, yoga and other mild sport types may be more adequate in later pregnancy.
The pelvic floor is a layer of muscle at the bottom of the pelvis that represents the lower border of the abdomen. Because humans walk upright, we place a lot of weight on our pelvic floor. The role of the pelvic floor is to keep the body’s openings (vagina, urethra and rectum) tightly closed and to enable emptying when required.Pregnancy and birth heavily strain the pelvic floor. During pregnancy the growing child and uterus place additional weight on the pelvic floor. At the same time, hormonal changes cause alterations in the muscle layers, making them softer and stretchier. In some cases this may lead to bladder weakness (incontinence) after pregnancy and birth.
There are specific risk factors that make it more likely for a woman to develop this functional disorder. A large baby, inherited connective tissue weakness, maternal age, obesity or a multiple pregnancy can favour such an outcome. Long labours, obstetric injuries (e.g. a third- or fourth-degree perineal tear), and assisted vaginal deliveries (including forceps deliveries) may also increase the risk of developing incontinence.
Regular training of the pelvic floor muscles even before pregnancy is the most effective prevention measure. A normal weight before conception is a protective factor as well as avoidance of excessive weight gain during pregnancy. A perineal massage before birth can help to make the perineum more elastic during the birth and may thus prevent serious obstetric injury.The hormonal changes after birth cause the pelvic floor to gradually return to its pre-pregnancy condition.
However, the tender and vulnerable muscles should not be put under excessive physical strain during the time after birth. The maximum load allowed to carry is five to ten kg (about the weight of the baby and the infant car seat). Postnatal exercises are essential to help recovering muscle tone. They should start about three months after the delivery – the earliest six weeks following an uncomplicated delivery and ten weeks after a caesarean section. Continuous exercises of the pelvis and their integration into daily routine is an effective way of keeping it strong and fit in a long term.
The environment around us has a huge impact on our health. Everywhere there are chemicals that we breath in, absorb through our skin or that enter our body over the nutrition. We are in contact with chemicals every day – they are in clothes, in the air, in cosmetis, packaging, food…
The developing baby is very sensitive to external factors. Thus, when planning a pregnancy or while pregnant, women should pay attention to minimize their contact with chemicals. Some sources are easily avoidable. For example, by washing vegetables and fruits and by consuming organic foods in the first place.
Also organic cosmetics especially when they are not perfumed include much less chemicals than “normal” products. Airing out the room regularly and vacuum-cleaning helps to decrease indoor-air pollution.
Aggressive cleaning agents contain a cocktail of harmful chemicals and should be interchanged with biologically degradable products. The less chemicals are poured in the waste water, the less will stay in the drinking water. The less chemicals we consume, the less enter our body.