Optimising your lifestyle before conception

Adopting healthy lifestyle habits prior to conceiving can not only improve fertility in both men and women, but may also affect the future health of your child. That’s right – research is now showing that a child’s future health, including their risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease, may be influenced by their parents lifestyle habits, before they are even conceived.

Here are the habits worth focusing on before you start trying to conceive.

  • Aim for a healthy weight. Carrying excess weight can affect fertility (in both partners) and may increase the risk of your child having weight problems later in life.  A recent study found that babies born to mothers who are obese have higher levels of body fat and a greater degree of insulin resistance (the underlying problem in PCOS and type 2 diabetes), even as newborns.  The good news is that even moderate weight loss (5-10% of your weight) can improve fertility and reduce health risks for you and your baby.  You can achieve this by adopting healthy eating habits, reducing portion sizes and beginning some regular exercise. Avoid overly restrictive diets and rapid weight loss – instead aim for a healthy, sustainable rate of weight loss of around 0.5kg per week.
  • Optimise your eating habits. It’s not just the amount you eat, but what you choose to eat that counts.  Eating well prior to conception can improve fertility and ensure that your nutritional stores are at optimum levels when you fall pregnant as well as ensuring your baby gets all the nutrients he or she needs in their first few weeks if life.
  • Get moving. Exercising regularly before you fall pregnant has been shown to reduce the risk of gestational diabetes (diabetes in pregnancy).  One study found that women who were inactive prior to pregnancy were almost 8 times more likely to develop GDM compared to more active women. Being fit will also help your body cope with the extra demands of pregnancy. 
  • Supplement safely. The NHMRC recommend that all women who are trying to conceive take a folic acid supplement providing 500 micrograms per day (more if you are at higher risk) and an iodine supplement providing 150 micrograms per day. These nutrients are particularly important for your baby’s development and taking folate has been shown to reduce the risk of birth defects such as spina bifida. The evidence for other supplements is lacking but if you do take them it is best to choose a pre-natal or pregnancy multivitamin & mineral.  Other supplements, including herbal preparations, may not be safe in pregnancy.
  • Avoid or limit alcohol. Excessive alcohol intake can affect both male and female fertility, and during pregnancy can harm your unborn baby and increase the risk of miscarriage and stillbirth.  Since you won’t know you are pregnant in the first few weeks, when your baby’s organs are already starting to form, it is best to avoid alcohol when you are trying to conceive. While no amount of alcohol is safe in pregnancy, it is particularly important to avoid binge drinking.
  • Cut down on caffeine. A moderate intake of caffeine shouldn’t affect fertility but too much caffeine during pregnancy may increase your chances of having a miscarriage, premature birth or a low birthweight baby. If you are a big consumer of caffeine, start cutting down as soon as you begin trying to conceive. Remember that coffee isn’t the only source of caffeine – it is also found in tea, cola drinks, energy drinks and chocolate.
  • If you smoke, quit. Smoking can reduce fertility in both males and females and pregnant women who smoke have a higher risk of miscarriage, ectopic pregnancy, premature birth and stillbirth. Babies born to smoking mothers also have a greater risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).   It is important that your partner quits too – one study found that children of non-smoking women whose partners smoked prior to their conception had a higher risk of childhood cancer and exposure to second-hand smoke from you partner can also increase the risk of SIDS and having a low birthweight baby.

While planning your pregnancy has obvious benefits for you and your baby, we all know that things don’t always go to plan!  So if you find yourself pregnant without any prior preparation, remember that most babies are born healthy, even if they are not planned.  Adopting health habits from today will still do a lot to ensure the health of both you and your baby.