Keep your baby safe before birth

With a new little life to think about, looking after yourself is more important than ever

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Your unborn baby is precious and you’ll want to do everything you can to protect him right now. Looking after yourself is crucial, as is being aware of some of the risks. From flossing your teeth and cutting down on caffeine to tucking into oily fish, here are key ways to keep you both healthy.

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Look after your teeth

NHS dental check-ups are free when you’re pregnant, so make the most of them. Research shows mums-to-be who suffer from periodontal disease, known as gum disease, could be at risk of having a premature baby, as it triggers higher levels of biological fluids that induce labour. Symptoms include bad breath and swollen or bleeding gums.

Health check: Cleaning your teeth for two minutes twice a day and regular flossing will reduce your risk. Treatment can cut your risk of a premature delivery by 84%, so see the dentist if you’re affected.

Take folic acid

Taking a folic acid supplement reduces the risk of having a baby with a neural tube defect such as spina bifida, where the protective bones around the spinal cord don’t form properly in the early weeks of pregnancy. Recent research at the University of Newcastle found it can also help ensure your baby is a healthy birth weight.

Health check: Take 400mcg of folic acid a day from the time you start trying for a baby and up to your 12th week of pregnancy.

Go to all your check-ups

It’s vital for you and your baby that you attend antenatal checks to get your blood pressure and urine tested. High blood pressure, protein in the urine and sudden swelling can all indicate pre-eclampsia, a potentially serious condition for you and your baby. It affects one in 10 pregnancies, and one in 50 mums-to-be will be severely affected. There’s possibly a genetic link but doctors still don’t know what causes it.

Health check: Swelling, headaches and vision changes can all be early warning signs.

Keep-fit exercise

Keeping fit has lots of benefits for you and your baby, and boosts your chances of an easier birth.

Regular exercise in pregnancy has been found to reduce the risk of having a low birth-weight baby, which is linked with a higher risk of heart disease and stroke later. Being unfit and overweight makes you more prone to pregnancy diabetes. This increases your risk of pre-eclampsia, which can lead to premature birth.

  • A daily half-hour walk is great exercise, especially if you didn’t exercise much before you got pregnant. Swimming is also good.

Avoid contact sports where you risk a knock or fall.

Learn to relax

Research suggests that babies exposed to high levels of stress hormones in the womb are often smaller, and this is linked with a greater risk of diabetes and heart disease. What’s more, pregnancy stress has been linked with premature labour.

  • Join a relaxation class.
  • Do something relaxing each day, like reading or taking a bath.

Watch your weight

Obesity during pregnancy can increase the risk of developing gestational diabetes or having a premature delivery. A US study also found pregnant women who gain more than 16kg are more likely to have a child who is overweight by the age of 3, while another study suggested that obesity can increase the risk of pre-eclampsia.

Health check: If you’re overweight, seek advice from your midwife or GP and take gentle exercise such as walking. Never diet when you’re pregnant.

Avoid certain painkillers

Taking painkillers such as aspirin and ibuprofen during pregnancy has been linked to a higher risk of miscarriage. Doctors say paracetamol is the safest painkiller to take as there’s no evidence an occasional tablet can do any damage. But don’t overdo it – one study found that taking it frequently in the second half of pregnancy could double the risk of having a wheezy baby, which is linked to the development of asthma.

Health check: You could try acupressure for natural pain relief. Using your thumb and index finger, squeeze either side of the fleshy area between the thumb and index finger on the other hand. Apply pressure for 30 seconds, then repeat. Do it two or three times a day.

Cut your risk of premature birth

A baby born before 37 weeks is described as premature and will usually have a low birth weight. There are many reasons for premature birth, ranging from pre-eclampsia to problems with the placenta separating from the wall of the womb or the cervix opening too soon. Report symptoms such as bleeding or pain to your midwife. If the bleeding or pain is severe or your waters break early, go straight to A&E. If you’re showing signs of going into early labour, doctors can give you drugs to try to halt things and will monitor you closely.

Ease up on the alcohol

Research shows excess alcohol in pregnancy can damage both you and your baby. One study found that even light to moderate drinking early in the pregnancy and particularly during the middle months is linked to a child having a lower-than-average IQ by the age of 10.

Health check: No one knows what a ‘safe’ level of alcohol is, but according to the Department of Health, drinking one or two units (about a glass of wine) no more than once or twice a week is fine. However, some experts say not to drink at all.

  • Go for non-alcoholic cocktails, smoothies and fresh fruit juices.
  • If your find giving up alcohol difficult, talk to your midwife or call Drinkline on 0800 917 8282.

Eat more fish

A recent study found babies had better social skills and had higher IQs when their mums ate oily fish while pregnant. It’s thought omega-3 fatty acids in oily fish such as fresh tuna and salmon can aid the growth of your unborn baby’s brain. And eating fish in the last three months can reduce the chances of a premature birth.

Health check: GP Dr Sarah Brewer says, ‘Pregnant women are advised by the UK Food Standards Agency to eat oily fish no more than twice a week, but it’s fine to have a supplement every day.’ Try Equa-zen’s high-grade supplement Mumomega, from £9.99, available from Boots. If you’re vegetarian, consider vegetarian supplements such as Vertese Omega Oils 3+6+9, £3.99 for 30, also available from Boots.

Quit smoking

Smoking when pregnant increases your risk of premature delivery, having a low-birth-weight baby and has also been linked to stillbirth and cot death. Swedish research indicates it can increase the risk of autism by 40%, and a 2003 study found even light smoking could lead to a more jittery baby.

Health check: Don’t go it alone – help and encouragement will make it easier.

  • For help giving up, call the NHS Pregnancy Smoking helpline on 0800 169 9169.
  • Even if you don’t smoke, avoid smoky atmospheres. If your partner smokes, encourage him to quit – passive smoking makes premature birth more likely.

Go easy on caffeine

Caffeine is found in coffee, tea, cola and some energy drinks. A high intake in pregnancy has been linked with low birth weight, miscarriage, stillbirth and cot death and may increase your baby’s risk of epilepsy.

Health check: Research suggests up to 300mg of caffeine a day during pregnancy is okay – that’s around three mugs of instant coffee, six cups of tea or eight cans of cola.

Be happy!

One study has found mums-to-be who feel anxious increase their risk of having a low- birth-weight baby. And further research has revealed pregnant women who are stressed are more likely to have a hyperactive child with a lower-than-average IQ.

Health check: Always take a proper lunch break, don’t work overtime and don’t be afraid to ask for plenty of help at home.

Symptoms you must never ignore

Pregnancy can bring about lots of side effects, many of which are perfectly normal and nothing to worry about. However, do mention anything you’re concerned about to your GP or midwife, if only to put your mind at rest. Symptoms that should always be checked include:

  • Bleeding More common than you might realise, bleeding doesn’t necessarily mean the worst. Always tell your midwife and seek medical help immediately if it becomes severe.
  • Frequent, continuous vomiting Could be a sign of a condition called hyperemesis gravidarum, which needs medical treatment to prevent you getting seriously dehydrated.
  • Severe headache, blurred vision, and/or sudden rapid swelling While each of these symptoms alone are common, combined they can be warning signs of pre-eclampsia.
  • Severe itching in mid to late pregnancy Can be a sign of a rare liver disease, obstetric cholestasis.
  • If you’re worried about any of your symptoms, call the NHS Direct 24-hour helpline on 0845 46 47.
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For more information, visit www.netdoctor.co.uk/.

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