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  health > women > story page AIDSAlternative MedicineCancerDiet & FitnessHeartMenSeniorsWomen

Eat right before pregnancy and boost your baby's health

November 29, 1999
Web posted at: 10:55 AM EST (1555 GMT)

In this story:

Folic acid: Reducing the risk of neural tube defects

Body weight: The risks of obesity

Iron: Essential for healthy blood

Phenylketonuria (PKU)


By John Sussman, M.D.

(WebMD) -- Most moms know that when they're pregnant they need to take in extra calories and nutrition, for proper growth of the baby and to support the increasing demands upon their own bodies. But there are nutritional boosts mothers-to-be can give themselves even before they get pregnant: advantages that will give women and their babies a head start once they are expecting.

Folic acid: Reducing the risk of neural tube defects

Thanks to public health campaigns, more moms than ever are learning about the benefits of taking folic acid (also known as folate) before becoming pregnant -- and continuing for at least the first three months of pregnancy -- to help reduce the chances of neural tube defects. These abnormalities include conditions such as spina bifida, an incomplete formation of the spine associated with varying degrees of paralysis, and anencephaly, a lethal condition in which the brain is severely underdeveloped.


Mothers to be

It's widely recommended -- by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the National Academy of Sciences and nearly every other major health organization -- that all women of childbearing age eat foods and/or supplements that provide at least 400 micrograms (0.4 milligrams) of folic acid per day, from a month before becoming pregnant through at least the first trimester, the time when the baby's spine and brain are forming.

Virtually all vitamins marketed as "prenatal" (including nonprescription vitamins) as well as many multivitamins not specifically for pregnant women contain this amount of folic acid. If you use a vitamin not prescribed by your doctor, check the label to be sure.

Body weight: The risks of obesity

Women who begin a pregnancy at their ideal body weight usually do well unless they are malnourished. Most vegetarians need to make minor adjustments in their diets to ensure the right nutrients for pregnancy. On the other hand, starting a pregnancy significantly overweight -- or gaining too much weight during pregnancy -- is linked with a variety of risks, including the increased likelihood of macrosomia -- an excessively large baby. Macrosomia is linked to higher rates of cesarean deliveries, and increased risk of fetal injury due to traumatic birth. A 1999 study by Duke University researchers (presented at the annual meeting of the American Society of Anesthesiologists) found that the higher a woman's body-mass index, the higher her chances of having a cesarean delivery.

A review of data published in a 1998 summer issue of the Journal of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Neonatal Nurses found that obese pregnant women experience more gestational diabetes, neural tube defects, preeclampsia (a dangerous condition involving fluid retention and high blood pressure) and induction of labor than women who are not obese. And it's not just the mother's health that's at risk: A 1998 study in the journal Diabetes Care found that a baby may be at extra risk of obesity or diabetes later in life if the mother is overweight or has poorly controlled diabetes during pregnancy.

Achieving ideal body weight before pregnancy can be an imposing goal to many overweight women, but efforts to reduce the degree of obesity can pay off for you and your baby. Your doctor can refer you to a qualified registered dietitian to help you accomplish your goal safely.

Iron: Essential for healthy blood

Iron is a basic building block for the production of red blood cells. A deficiency of these cells is known as anemia, and when the deficiency is caused by low iron intake the condition is called iron-deficiency anemia. Many women of reproductive age have some degree of iron-deficiency anemia related to menstrual blood loss and inadequate iron intake. Red blood cells are needed to carry oxygen to all the vital organs -- including the uterus, where oxygen crosses the placenta to reach the baby. Starting a pregnancy with anemia or low iron stores may deprive the baby of oxygen -- though the fetus is somewhat protected from this because of its ability to extract oxygen from the mother's blood.

Anemia typically becomes more pronounced in the late second trimester of pregnancy, and unless it's corrected it may leave the mother severely anemic after the blood loss that occurs during delivery. Eating foods rich in iron and vitamin C -- which helps the body absorb iron -- is an effective way of preventing iron-deficiency anemia both before and during pregnancy.

Phenylketonuria (PKU)

Women with the genetic condition PKU -- who have elevated levels of the amino acid phenylalanine in their blood -- are at risk of having babies with mental retardation, congenital heart defects and intrauterine growth restriction. Preconception and first trimester restriction of foods with high phenylalanine content (such as red meats and soy products) can reduce these risks. Talk to your doctor if you have this condition.

John R. Sussman, M.D., is an obstetrician-gynecologist in private practice in New Milford, Connecticut. He is the co-author of "The Unofficial Guide to Having a Baby" and "Before You Conceive: The Complete Prepregnancy Guide."

Copyright 1999 WebMD, Inc. All rights reserved.

Become nutritionally prepared for the first two months of pregnancy
Commonly asked questions about diet and pregnancy

American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists
American Dietetic Association: What women need to know about folate
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