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Planning for pregnancy

This factsheet is for women who are planning to have a baby, or for anyone who would like information on how to prepare for pregnancy. It also includes information for men planning to become fathers.

Being fit and healthy maximises your chances of a healthy pregnancy. By the time you have missed your first period, you are two weeks pregnant. So, it's best to prepare for a pregnancy before trying to conceive, and to follow the advice that is given to pregnant women.

Stopping contraception

If you’re planning a pregnancy, you will need to think about stopping the contraception you have been using. If you use barrier methods of contraception, such as condoms or diaphragms, it’s possible for you to become pregnant as soon as you stop using these. You may worry that some other methods of contraception you have been using could affect your chances of getting pregnant. However, most women find that their fertility levels and periods return to normal in a short period of time.

You will regain your normal fertility quickly when you:

  • stop taking the contraceptive pill
  • have a contraceptive implant removed
  • have an intra-uterine device (coil) removed, including one that releases hormones

If you were using the contraceptive depot injection, your periods and fertility may take longer, up to 12 months in some women, to return to normal than after other methods of contraception are stopped.

If you do get pregnant very soon after stopping hormonal contraception, there is no need to worry because this will not harm your baby.

When is the best time to conceive?

If couples have sexual intercourse two to three times a week without using contraception, more than eight in 10 will become pregnant within the first year of trying for a baby. Some people believe that timing sex to be close to ovulation is the best strategy for getting pregnant, but this is not necessarily the case. Regularly having sex every two to three days prevents the pressure and stress that can occur if you try to time it with ovulation. Stress on either partner is known to affect the chances of conceiving.

If you've been trying for a baby for a year without getting pregnant, you and your partner should see your GP. If you’re over 35 or you have infrequent or no periods, visit your GP sooner.

Healthy weight

Before you try to conceive, aiming for a healthy weight will increase your chances of ovulation. A healthy body mass index (BMI) for adult women is between 19 and 25. See our BMI calculator to work out what your current, pre-pregnancy BMI is.

If your BMI is over 29, losing excess weight will improve your chances of ovulation. It’s not advisable to try to lose weight if you’re already pregnant, so planning to lose excess weight in advance of conceiving is important.

If your BMI is under 19, you may find that you have irregular or no periods. This can indicate that you aren’t ovulating regularly. Aiming to increase your weight to within the healthy range is likely to help regulate your ovulation and periods, which improves your chance of conceiving.

You may find that joining a group programme that includes exercise and dietary advice for reaching and maintaining a healthy weight increases your chances of pregnancy.

Healthy eating

Eating a healthy diet before pregnancy means that your body has adequate stores of vitamins and minerals. A nutritious, well-balanced diet includes eating a variety of the following foods.

  • Plenty of fruit and vegetables (at least five portions a day), which can be fresh, frozen or tinned.
  • Starchy foods, which includes bread, pasta, rice and potatoes.
  • Protein, such as lean meat, fish, beans and lentils.
  • Plenty of fibre, which can be found in wholegrain breads, fruit and vegetables.
  • Dairy foods, such as milk, yoghurt and cheese, which are a good source of calcium.

Drink enough fluids every day, but limit your intake of caffeine-containing drinks, such as coffee, energy drinks and other fizzy drinks. Also try not to eat or drink too many foods that are high in sugar, salt or fat.

There are certain types of food that can increase your risk of food poisoning caused by bacteria. As well as making you ill, these bacteria can cause serious problems in your unborn baby. The Department of Health advises that women who are planning pregnancy, or who are pregnant, should not eat:
 

  • soft, mould-ripened cheeses, such as Camembert and Brie
  • blue-veined cheeses, such as Stilton and Roquefort
  • pâtés (including vegetable pâté)
  • uncooked or undercooked ready-prepared meals
  • uncooked or cured meat, such as salami
  • raw shellfish, such as oysters
  • unpasteurised milk or cheeses
  • uncooked or lightly cooked eggs and egg products, such as soft-boiled eggs or home-made mayonnaise

There are other foods that you shouldn’t eat because of risks associated with substances found in them. Don’t eat the following foods when you're pregnant.

  • Large quantities of liver, liver products, vitamin supplements that include vitamin A and fish liver oils because these all may contain levels of vitamin A that can harm your unborn baby.
  • Fish, such as shark, swordfish, fresh tuna and marlin because they contain relatively high levels of methylmercury. This might affect your unborn baby’s nervous system.
  • More than two medium size cans of tuna a week because of the high levels of mercury they may contain.

Previous advice from the Department of Health stated that you may choose not to eat peanuts during pregnancy because of the risk of allergy developing in your baby. However, newer research has led to this advice changing because there is no clear evidence that avoiding peanuts has any effect on whether your baby develops a peanut allergy.

Folic acid

You will be advised to take 400 micrograms (400µg) daily of folic acid from the time you stop contraception until week 12 of pregnancy.

Folic acid helps to prevent your baby developing serious problems of the brain and nerves (such as spina bifida). You may be at a higher risk of having a baby with spina bifida if you have had a previous pregnancy affected by it, or you have a family history of spina bifida. If you take medicines for epilepsy, have diabetes, coeliac disease or thalassaemia, your risk is also increased. If you’re affected by any of these, you may be advised to take a higher dose of folic acid, up to 5 milligrams (5mg) daily. Talk to your GP, who can prescribe you higher doses than you can buy over the counter.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is mainly produced in your body when your skin is exposed to sunlight. If you rarely spend time outdoors with your skin uncovered, you may be more at risk of vitamin D deficiency. The Department of Health recommends that all pregnant women take a daily supplement of 10 micrograms (10µg) of vitamin D.

What to stop before trying for a baby

Smoking

It’s important to try to stop smoking when planning to get pregnant. If you or your partner smokes, it can reduce your fertility.

If you smoke during pregnancy, you will have a greater risk of:

  • miscarriage
  • stillbirth
  • giving birth too early (premature birth)
  • complications during and after pregnancy and labour
  • having a low birth weight baby

If your baby has a low birth weight or is born prematurely, he or she is more likely to have health problems and is at higher risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS, or cot death).

If you or your partner needs help, support or practical advice on giving up smoking, you can talk to your GP, practice nurse or midwife. You may be able to get help and advice from your pharmacist.

Alcohol

It’s best not to drink any alcohol when you’re trying to get pregnant and during the whole of your pregnancy. Alcohol, even in small amounts, may harm your unborn baby and lead to problems including damage to his or her facial features, brain, heart and kidneys, as well as learning difficulties and behavioural problems in later life.

If you do choose to drink alcohol, you can reduce the risk to your baby by limiting the amount you drink to no more than two units of alcohol, once or twice a week. Don't get drunk. You can check your alcohol consumption using our alcohol calculator.

Medicines

If you take medicines for any reason, tell your GP that you’re planning to get pregnant because some medicines may affect your developing baby. Don’t stop any medicines you have been prescribed until you talk to your GP because this could affect your health.

If you need to take a painkiller while you’re trying for a baby or once you’re pregnant, paracetamol is recommended. However, if you find paracetamol ineffective, occasional, single doses of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, have not been shown to have negative effects on conception or pregnancy, up to week 30. From week 30, there is evidence that NSAIDs can cause pregnancy complications, so these must only be taken under supervision by a doctor and with regular monitoring of your unborn baby.

If you buy any medicines from a pharmacy, always check with your pharmacist to see if these are safe to take while trying for a baby, or when pregnant. Check that any herbal or alternative remedies, or complementary therapies are safe to use during pregnancy, or while trying to get pregnant. Very few of these types of medicine have been established to be safe in pregnant women. Ask your doctor, nurse, midwife or pharmacist about these. Keeping the use of all medicines to a minimum during pregnancy is advised.

Hazards at work

It’s possible that substances you’re exposed to at work may put your health or the health of your unborn baby at risk. Certain chemicals, such as mercury and lead, or radioactive substances, such as X-rays, have the potential to be harmful to your baby. Your physical working environment, such as if you work at height, do heavy lifting, are on your feet all day or work alone, may also be more risky if you’re pregnant. It’s important that you speak to those who are responsible for health and safety in your workplace. Your role at work may need to be adjusted while you’re pregnant.

Issues to discuss with your GP

Existing medical conditions

Before you plan to try for a baby, it’s important that you speak to your GP if you have any medical conditions, such as diabetes, epilepsy, heart or circulatory problems. The prescription medicines you take for any medical condition may need to be altered in dose, type or gradually stopped. Don’t stop taking any prescribed medicines without seeking advice from your GP because this could put your health at risk.

If you have any gynaecological problems, such as endometriosis, polycystic ovary syndrome, or have had an ectopic pregnancy (when the fertilised egg implants outside the womb, often in the fallopian tube), it will be useful to talk to your GP because these conditions may affect your chances of conceiving and your GP may be able to refer you for more specialist advice from an obstetrician or gynaecologist These doctors specialise in identifying and treating conditions in women. A gynaecologist specialises in reproductive health. An obstetrician specialises in pregnancy and childbirth.

Genetic counselling

If you or your partner have any hereditary conditions in your families, such as sickle cell anaemia, thalassaemia, cystic fibrosis or muscular dystrophy, let your GP know. He or she can refer you for genetic counselling. This involves speaking to a genetic counsellor who is a specialist in inherited conditions and who can work out your chances of passing on a hereditary condition to your baby.

Immunisations

Rubella is a mild viral infection that is commonly caught by young children, causing a rash and making them generally feel unwell. Most children in the UK are now vaccinated against rubella but it’s still possible that you could get infected. The infection is most serious if you catch it in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy because it can lead to serious damage to your baby’s heart, eyes and ears.

Once you’re vaccinated against rubella, the immunity usually lasts for life. However, it’s important to find out before your conceive if you’re still immune. This can be checked by having a blood test. If it’s found that you’re lacking immunity to rubella, your GP will recommend you have the vaccination. You need to wait a month from when you’re vaccinated until you try to get pregnant.

Another vaccination you may be offered if you’re planning a pregnancy is against chickenpox. If you’re a health professional working with people who are unwell, or if you work or live with people who have weakened immune systems, for instance, people who have HIV/AIDS, you can be vaccinated against chickenpox.

If you haven’t been vaccinated against hepatitis B, you may choose to have this vaccination if you live or work with people who may have this disease.

Advice for fathers

Try to keep your BMI below 29 because being overweight can affect your fertility. See our BMI calculator to work this out.

Smoking can lower your sperm quality. Choosing to quit smoking will increase the number of healthy sperm you can produce, as well as having other health benefits. Once your baby is born, to protect him or her from the effects of passive smoking, don’t start smoking again.

Too much alcohol can also damage sperm quality, so you’re advised to cut down on drinking to increase your chances of conceiving.

Sperm production can be affected by high temperatures. If you’re trying for a baby, there may be an advantage to wearing loose-fitting underwear and trousers to keep your testicles at a lower temperature, but this has not been proven.

 

For answers to frequently asked questions on this topic, see Common questions.

For sources and links to further information, see Resources.

Need more information?

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  • This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The content is intended only for general information and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the about our health information page.

    Approved by Plain English Campaign The Information Standard memberHON Code

     

  • Produced by Louise Abbott, Bupa Health Information Team, March 2012.

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