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Birth Defects
Birth Defects Home > Prevention > Having a Healthy Pregnancy
Having a Healthy Pregnancy
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Not all birth defects can be prevented, but a woman can take some actions that increase her chance of having a healthy baby.  Many birth defects happen very early in pregnancy, sometimes before a woman even knows she is pregnant.  Remember that about half of all pregnancies are unplanned. 

ABC's...Pregnancy Tips (A-Z)

A   Avoid exposure to toxic substances and chemicals --- such as cleaning solvents, lead and mercury, some insecticides, and paint.  Pregnant women should avoid exposure to paint fumes. 

B   Be sure to see your doctor and get prenatal care as soon as you think you're pregnant.  It's important to see your doctor regularly throughout pregnancy, so be sure to keep all your prenatal care appointments.


Breastfeeding is the healthiest choice for both you and your baby.  Talk to your doctor, your family and friends, and your employer about how you choose to feed your baby and how they can support you in your decision.

C   Cigarette smoking during pregnancy increases the chances of premature birth, certain birth defects, and infant death. Women who smoke during pregnancy are more likely than other women to have a miscarriage and to have a baby born with a cleft lip or cleft palate--types of birth defects.  Smoking is one of the causes of problems with the placenta and can cause a baby to be born too early and have low birth weight.  Smoking is also one of the causes of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).

D   Drink extra fluids (water is best) throughout pregnancy to help your body keep up with the increases in your blood volume.  Drink at least 6 to 8 glasses of water, fruit juice, or milk each day.  A good way to know you're drinking enough fluid is when your urine looks like almost-clear water or is very light yellow. 

E   Eat healthy to get the nutrients you and your unborn baby need.  Your meals should include the five basic food groups.  Each day you should get the following: 6-11 servings of grain products, 3-5 servings of vegetables, 2-4 servings of fruits,
4-6 servings of milk and milk products, 3-4 servings of meat and protein foods.  Foods low in fat and high in fiber are important to a healthy diet. 

F   Take 400 micrograms of folic acid daily both before pregnancy and during the first few months of pregnancy to reduce the risk of birth defects of the brain and spine.  All women who could possibly become pregnant should take a vitamin with folic acid, every day.  It is also important to eat a healthy diet with fortified foods (enriched grain products, including cereals, rice, breads, and pastas) and foods with natural sources of folate (orange juice, green leafy vegetables, beans, peanuts, broccoli, asparagus, peas, and lentils).

G   Genetic testing should be done appropriately.  It's important to know your family history.  If there have been problems with pregnancies or birth defects in your family, report these to your doctor.  Also, genetic counselors can talk with you about the information you might need in making decisions about having a family.  You can call a major medical center in your area for help in finding a board-certified genetic counselor.

H   Hand-washing is important throughout the day, especially after handling raw meat or using the bathroom.  This can help prevent the spread of many bacteria and viruses that cause infection.  

Take 30 milligrams of iron during your pregnancy as prescribed by your doctor to reduce the risk of anemia later in pregnancy.  All women of childbearing age should eat a diet rich in iron.

Join a support group for moms to be, or join a class on parenting or childbirth. 

Know your limits.  Let your physician know if you experience any of the following:  pain of any kind, strong cramps, uterine contractions at 20-minute intervals, vaginal bleeding, leaking of amniotic fluid, dizziness, fainting, shortness of breath, palpitations, tachycardia (rapid beating of the heart), constant nausea and vomiting, trouble walking, edema (swelling of joints), or if your baby has decreased activity.  

L   Legal drugs such as alcohol and caffeine are important issues for pregnant women.  There is no known safe amount of alcohol a woman can drink while pregnant.  Fetal alcohol syndrome , a disorder characterized by growth retardation, facial abnormalities, and central nervous system dysfunction, is caused by a woman's use of alcohol during pregnancy.  Caffeine, found in tea, coffee, soft drinks and chocolate, should also be limited.  Be sure to read labels when trying to cut down on caffeine during pregnancy.  More than 200 foods, beverages, and over-the-counter medications contain caffeine!  

Medical conditions/complications such as diabetes, epilepsy, and high blood pressure should be treated and kept under control.  Ask your doctor about any medications that may need to be changed or adjusted during pregnancy.  If you are currently taking any medications ask your doctor if it is safe to take them while you're pregnant.  Also, be sure to discuss any herbs or vitamins you are taking.  They are medicines, too!  Discuss with your doctor all medications, prescribed and over-the-counter, that you are taking. 

Now is the time to baby-proof your home. These are important tips for making your home a safer environment for your baby.

   Over-the-counter cough and cold remedies may contain alcohol or other ingredients that should be avoided during pregnancy.  Ask your health care provider about prescription or over-the-counter drugs that you are taking or may consider taking while pregnant.  

Physical activity during pregnancy can benefit both you and your baby by lessening discomfort and fatigue, providing a sense of well-being, and increasing the likelihood of early recovery after delivery.  Light to moderate exercise during pregnancy strengthens the abdominal and back muscles, which help to improve posture.  Practicing yoga, walking, swimming, and cycling on a stationary bicycle are usually safe exercises for pregnant women.  But always check with your doctor before beginning any kind of exercise, especially during pregnancy.

Queasiness, stomach upset and morning sickness are common during pregnancy.  Foods that you normally love may make you feel sick to your stomach.  You may need to substitute other nutritious foods.  Eating five or six small meals a day instead of three large ones may make you feel better. 

Rodents may carry lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus (LCMV). If a pregnant woman is infected with LCMV, it can pass to the unborn baby and cause severe abnormalities or loss of the pregnancy. Avoid all contact with rodents, including pet hamsters and guinea pigs, and with their urine, droppings and nesting materials throughout pregnancy. Mice in the home should be removed promptly by a professional pest control company or another member of the household. Pet rodents should be housed in a separate part of the house where other household members or friends can care for the pet and clean its cage. For more information, see 

   Saunas, hot tubs, and steam rooms should be avoided while you are pregnant.  Excessive high heat may be harmful during your pregnancy.

Toxoplasmosis is an infection caused by a parasite that can seriously harm an unborn baby.  Avoid eating undercooked meat and handling cat litter, and be sure to wear gloves when gardening. 

Uterus size increases during the first trimester, which, along with more efficient functioning of your kidneys, may cause you to feel the need to urinate more often.  You may also leak urine when sneezing, coughing or laughing.  This is due to the growing uterus pressing against your bladder, which lies directly in front of and slightly under the uterus during the first few months of pregnancy.  If you experience burning along with frequency of urination, be sure to tell your doctor.

Vaccinations are an important concern for pregnant women.  Get needed vaccines before pregnancy.  CDC has clear guidelines for the use of vaccines during pregnancy.   Review the list and be sure to discuss with your doctor.

Being overweight or underweight during pregnancy may cause problems.  Try to get within 15 pounds of your ideal weight before pregnancy.  Remember, pregnancy is not a time to be dieting!  Don't stop eating or start skipping meals as your weight increases.  Both you and your baby need the calories and nutrition you receive from a healthy diet.  Be sure to consult with your doctor about your diet.

Avoid X rays.  If you must have dental work or diagnostic tests, tell your dentist or physician that you are pregnant so that extra care can be taken.

Your baby loves you, and you should show your baby that you love her, too.  Give your baby a healthy environment to live in while you are pregnant.  Infants and children require constant care and guidance.  Their health and safety should be carefully watched at all times.  Refer to the link above for tips on safe and healthy child care.

Get your ZZZZZZZZZ's...Be sure to get plenty of rest... Resting on your side as often as possible, especially on your left side is advised, as it provides the best circulation to your baby and helps reduce swelling.  

Disclaimer:  Please consult your doctor on any and all issues regarding your pregnancy.  Although these may be good general pregnancy tips, every pregnancy is different, and each deserves the attention of a doctor or health care provider.

Safe Motherhood

Related Links

The following links provide more technical literature on pregnancy-related issues:

Medications & Pregnancy

Drug & Alcohol Use During Pregnancy

Date: October 5, 2005
Content source: National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities


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