What is preconception health?
Preconception health refers to a woman’s health during her reproductive window, from puberty through menopause. It is a broad term encompassing physical and mental health for women in their childbearing years. Good preconception health will make pregnancy and motherhood more manageable for women who conceive. Without meaning to, many women develop habits that could harm an unborn child in the event of pregnancy. Additionally, certain medical conditions, like diabetes, can harm pregnant women and their babies if not treated properly. It is important to be aware of these habits and conditions so that we are more mindful of our bodies and ensure that we stay healthy regardless of our situation.
Why is preconception health important?
The number one reason that preconception health is important is to protect the health of mothers and babies during unplanned pregnancies. In 2013, about 51% of births in the US were unplanned, and the rate of unplanned pregnancies to unwed mothers was even higher, at around 68%. This means that roughly 2 million women had children without planning to, and were therefore not preparing their bodies for pregnancy at the time of conception.
Unplanned babies, born to mothers not caring for their prenatal health, are at far greater risk for preterm delivery and low birth weight, as well as physical birth defects, which can cause serious developmental problems for the children.
What can I do to maintain good preconception health?
Maintaining good preconception health requires being physically and emotionally healthy, and can range from getting your vitamins to getting counseling. Whatever your needs may be, remember how important it is to be healthy and strong for your children and for yourself.
1. Get enough folic acid.
All women need some folic acid, a form of Vitamin B9, every day, although many do not get enough. Folic acid is typically found in fruits, dark leafy vegetables, beans, and meat. It is recommended that women who are trying to conceive or capable of conceiving get 0.4 to 0.8 milligrams of folic acid per day.
The greatest concern for women who do not get enough folic acid before and during pregnancy is that their babies are at far greater risk of having neurological complications like spina bifida, a disabling birth defect in which the spinal column does not develop properly.
2. Manage chronic health problems.
Chronic health problems like diabetes, epilepsy, asthma, and obesity can all compromise your health and the health of your baby if they are not treated properly. Be sure to talk to your doctor about any health problems you have to make sure they are being properly treated. This can include taking proper medication, as well as making lifestyle choices to make sure you eat healthy and get enough exercise.
3. Stop smoking and using drugs, and avoid alcohol.
All drugs increase your risk of developing health problems, and of your baby having developmental problems in the womb. Smoking tobacco increases your risk for blood clots and many types of cancer, and can also be extremely damaging to your baby’s development both in the womb and after delivery. Doing other drugs and drinking alcohol excessively increase your risk for death and self-harm, and can severely damage your child’s physical development and greatly inhibit your ability to provide for a child.
If you are unable to quit your smoking, drug, or drinking habits, talk to your healthcare provider or local treatment center about getting help.
4. Make sure you are in a safe, healthy environment.
Your daily environment should be healthy both physically and emotionally. Your work and home spaces should be free of close interactions with any toxic substances, including drugs, chemicals, and animal feces. Infection from toxic substances can seriously harm you and your child. If you are concerned about toxicity in your work or home environment, consult your doctor about how to avoid infection that could harm you or your baby.
It is also important to your preconception health that the people closest to you be nonviolent and supportive. Chronic stress from unhealthy environments can cause preterm labor for babies, and physical and emotional violence places victims at far greater risk for developing symptoms of depression. If you are living with or are close to someone who is either physically or mentally abusive, avoid contact with that person and seek help, either through family or professional resources. Keeping yourself safe and healthy is the only way to ensure that your baby will grow up in a positive environment.
5. Make sure you have good mental health.
Women are at far greater risk for depression than men, particularly during the years when they are able to get pregnant. Many risk factors are genetic or environmental, and can worsen with age. Often, women experience post-partum depression, in which they feel sad and hopeless after the birth of a child. In certain cases, these symptoms are extreme enough that the mother will be unable to care for her baby. Luckily, the symptoms of depression can be treated through counseling and medication. If you are at risk for depression or already experience symptoms of it, it is important to seek help before conception to decrease your chances of experiencing post-partum depression. Particularly if the pregnancy is unplanned, preconception mental health is extremely important because it can help you cope with the added stress of an unintended pregnancy.
How can I reduce my risk for unplanned pregnancy?
Although unplanned pregnancies are common, they are highly preventable through the routine use of contraceptives. If you are sexually active, make sure you talk to your healthcare provider about the different methods of practicing safe sex to reduce your risk of having an unplanned pregnancy.
Preconception health is important for all women, not just those who are trying to get pregnant. Maintaining good preconception health helps keep your baby healthy during pregnancy, but can also help women conceive when the time is right to plan a pregnancy. Additionally, if you are sexually active you are at some risk for unplanned pregnancy, despite the many contraceptive methods available. Paying attention to personal risk factors and maintaining good preconception health will make any pregnancies easier for the mother and baby whether the conception was planned or not.