Are you ready to conceive?
If you and your partner have been thinking about having a baby and are now at a point in your relationship where you want to start trying, then read on!
The good news is that over 80% of couples will naturally conceive within the first year of trying (as long as they aren’t using contraception and have sex regularly). Of the couples who don't conceive in 12 months, roughly 50% will in the second year of trying.
What is preconception health?
Conceiving a healthy baby begins before you start trying. Preconception health is your health status before you are pregnant. A generally healthy lifestyle can improve your chances of conceiving and reduce the risk of pregnancy or birth complications. Focus on improving your own health at least 3 months before you begin trying to conceive.
Any pre-existing health conditions may affect your pregnancy chances so it can take longer than 3 months to be well enough to start trying for a baby. Make sure that your condition is well controlled and review any regular medication with your doctor –some medications may have an impact on your fertility or the development of the baby.
A preconception health check is a good thing to do before you become pregnant. The doctor will look at your vaccination status (rubella) and may make lifestyle and diet supplement suggestions. If there’s a possibility that you or your partner may have a sexually-transmitted infection (STI), this is the time to get tested. Some STIs, like chlamydia, can cause infertility. A cervical screening test may be sensible if you haven’t had one in the last 3 years.
What about your family’s health?
A family health history is an important part of a preconception health check. It records any conditions and diseases that run in your family. Your partner’s family history will be noted too. Try to get this information to hand before you plan to get pregnant or go for a preconception health check.
Conditions the doctor will want to be aware of include genetic conditions and chronic diseases. Some genetic conditions are more common in different ethnic groups, so it is important to be aware of anything that may occur in your family. Chronic diseases like asthma, hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, and autoimmune diseases should be well managed before conceiving.
How can you improve your chances of getting pregnant? And what things can you do once you’re pregnant?
There are some basic things you can do to increase the likelihood of that much desired positive pregnancy test and safe pregnancy and birth. Here are 10 tips on timing, lifestyle and diet:
1.Have sex when ovulating
The best time to get pregnant is within a day of ovulation, which is when the ovaries release the egg. This occurs about 2 weeks after your last period, but each woman’s menstrual cycle varies. The egg survives for 12-24 hours after its release, so fertilisation by a sperm must happen during this time (sperm can live for up to 7 days after ejaculation into the vagina). Having sex every 2-3 days during the monthly cycle allows for your chances to rise. Predicting ovulation timing isn’t easy – so try this online ovulation calculator.
Other methods of detecting your fertility window include:
- Measuring your basal body temperature – one may be able to detect a small rise in body temperature (around half a degree) when your fertility chances improve. This is only effective if you have no signs of infection or inflammation that can also increase your temperature.
- Change in cervical mucus consistency – as your hormone levels change during the menstrual cycle, so does the cervical mucus. During ovulation, it becomes thick and sticky and may appear cloudy.
- Ovulation predictor home kits – most measure the LH (luteinising hormone) levels in your mid-stream urine. LH levels rise just before ovulation and can be a useful indicator of ovulation. Nowadays one can also try a saliva microscope test, which looks for ‘ferning’ or a crystal-like pattern. See these Babystart products: FertilTime (urine) and FertiFocus (saliva). After a positive test, it’s best to have sex on the same day and for the next few days.
- Monitoring follicle development – your doctor can measure the maturity of follicles via ultrasound scans and hormone blood tests. This approach will tell you exactly when ovulation occurs, though usually reserved for couples needing specialist fertility support.
2.Maintain a healthy weight
Fertility is affected by being overweight or underweight. The amount of body fat you have can lead to irregular periods and influence conception. Doctors and nurses measure body mass index (BMI) to assess whether someone’s weight is proportional to their height. A score between 20 and 25 is fine, but above 30 or below 19 can decrease fertility in both women and men.
A high BMI pregnancy may lead to complications and most health professionals will advise against home birth. A list of pregnancy issues include:
- Diabetes in pregnancy
- Blood clots
- Premature birth
- Difficult, longer labour
- Emergency caesarean section
- Heavy bleeding after birth
Try bringing your weight down by improving your diet and increasing the amount of daily exercise you do. If you need support, seek advice from a dietician or doctor.
- Stop smoking
Smoking reduces fertility in both women and men. It not only affects your health leading to pregnancy complications but has been proven to cause DNA damage to the unborn baby. Stopping smoking before you try to conceive will increase your chances of success.
- Be active
Regular exercise before conception not only increases your fertility but also reduces complications in pregnancy and birth if continued after conception. At least 2-3 hours a week of moderate aerobic activity is recommended along with some muscle strengthening routines.
- Do not take recreational or non-prescription drugs
Drugs such as cannabis and cocaine reduce fertility in both women and men. Taking these or over-the-counter pills during pregnancy, like codeine, may affect the baby’s development and lead to serious complications. Get advice from your local pharmacist for more information.
Diet and Supplements
- Have a healthy balanced diet
It is good to maintain healthy meals while trying for a baby as well as during pregnancy. A diet high in fresh fruit and vegetables, lentils, whole grains, unsaturated fats and lean meats while reducing sugary, salty and processed foods will benefit your health and the babies.
Things to avoid include:
- Certain soft cheeses
- Unpasteurised milk
- Raw/undercooked meat (be careful with cold cured meats)
- Raw/undercooked eggs
- Liver and game
- Vitamin A or fish oil supplements
- Fish like shark, marlin or swordfish (sushi only if not made from fresh frozen sources)
- Reduce or eliminate your alcohol intake
Drinking above recommended levels impairs fertility in both women and men– it’s best to avoid when trying to get pregnant. In men, excessive drinking reduces sperm quality. During the first 3 months of pregnancy, alcohol causes major harm to the baby, affecting brain development and increasing the chances of a miscarriage. After the first trimester, only 1-2 units up to twice per week is advised. However, there is no proven safe amount of alcohol a woman can drink during pregnancy. Heavy drinking during pregnancy causes severe malformations to the baby.
- Cut down your caffeine amount
The chances of miscarrying increase with a high caffeine intake while trying for a baby. In pregnancy, it can also harm the baby’s development. It’s best not to drink more than 1 strong cup of coffee, or 2 cups of tea per day – the equivalent of 200mg caffeine.
- Take a folic acid supplement
Folic acid (vitamin B9) is critical in early baby development. In addition to a diet with folate-containing foods, taking a supplement before pregnancy is recommended - up to 3 months before conception. A daily tablet of 400mcg until 12 weeks of pregnancy is advised.
Some people have a higher risk of folate deficiency, e.g. those with diabetes, obesity, anti-epilepsy drugs or family history of baby neural development problems. These individuals should take 5mg folic acid daily until 12 weeks of pregnancy.
- Take Vitamin D supplement
Healthy bones, teeth and muscle depend on regular Vitamin D in your diet, so it’s no surprise that a growing baby will need Vitamin D from its mother. It is found in oily fish, red meat and eggs and is added to cereals and milk alternatives. The body can make it through sun exposure. However, diet and sun may not be enough during pregnancy – the recommendation is for a daily tablet of 10mcg during pregnancy and breastfeeding.
Improve your pregnancy chances by improving your health, especially diet and lifestyle. Try using home kits for checking ovulation timing. For any additional symptoms or inability to conceive after trying for 1 year, go see your GP.
Any advice and/or tips in this article do not constitute medical advice. Not all dietary suggestions mentioned are supported by conclusive scientific research. Please seek advice from your doctor if you have further questions and wish to get standard recommendations approved within the medical profession.