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Planning for pregnancy

Expert reviewer, Dr Samantha Wild, General Practitioner, Bupa UK and Michelle Sheridan, Midwife, Bupa UK
Next review due July 2024

If you’re thinking about trying for a baby, planning ahead can increase your chances of getting pregnant and having a healthy pregnancy. From the best time to conceive to what to eat when planning a pregnancy, we cover everything you need to know here.

A happy couple outside

Timings for pregnancy

If you’re planning a pregnancy, the decision about the best time to try for a baby will be very personal to you. However, it’s important to bear in mind that the risks of pregnancy increase over the age of 35. It also gets harder to get pregnant as you get older.

If you’re using contraception, it’s important to be aware that fertility doesn’t always return straight away. So, you may need to plan when to stop contraception.

  • If you use a barrier method of contraception, such as condoms or a diaphragm, you can get pregnant as soon as you stop using it.
  • If you’re taking a combined contraceptive pill, ideally finish the pack you’re on. It can help to wait to start trying for a baby until you’ve had one normal period. This is because it’s easier to work out how many weeks pregnant you are. If you’re taking a progesterone-only pill, you can stop at any time – you don’t need to finish the pack you’re on.
  • If you have an IUD (intrauterine device), an IUS (intrauterine system) or a hormone implant, you’ll need to have it taken out. Your fertility should return to its usual level quite quickly. But it’s best to wait until you’ve had a normal period before getting pregnant.
  • If you’ve been having contraceptive injections, your periods and fertility can take longer to return to normal. This can be up to a year but isn’t always the case.

Another point to consider in the timing of your pregnancy is previous pregnancies. Having too short a gap between pregnancies can affect your health and that of your baby. Research suggests it’s best to wait at least 12 to 18 months between giving birth and becoming pregnant again. This is particularly important if you’ve previously had a caesarean section. If you do fall pregnant within a year of giving birth, don’t worry. Talk to your midwife or GP if you have any concerns.

When is the best time to conceive?

If you’re trying to conceive via sexual intercourse with a partner, your best chance is to have sex every two to three days throughout your cycle. If you’re having artificial insemination to conceive, this should be timed around when you’re ovulating. Ovulation is when an egg is released from one of your ovaries, usually around 10 to 16 days before the start of your next period.

Some couples try to time having sex around ovulation. You can get to know when you're ovulating by keeping track of changes to your cervical mucus. You can also use an ovulation predictor kit or monitoring device. It can be difficult to get timings of ovulation right though, so don’t worry if you don’t do this. If it ends up making you feel stressed, this can affect your chances of conceiving.

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How long does it take to get pregnant?

About eight in every 10 women under the age of 40, will conceive within a year of having regular, unprotected sex. Of those who don’t get pregnant in the first year, about half will get pregnant in the second year of trying.

Around half of women under the age of 40 will get pregnant within six cycles of artificial insemination (when sperm is inserted into the womb). Of those who don’t get pregnant within six cycles, half will do with a further six cycles.

If you haven’t become pregnant after a year of having regular, unprotected sex or after six cycles of artificial insemination, see your GP. If you have a partner, they should go too. Your GP may offer you and your partner an assessment and investigations to see if there’s any reason why you haven’t conceived.

Healthy weight for pregnancy

Being a healthy weight can really improve your chances of getting pregnant. It will also reduce your risk of complications during pregnancy. Being overweight can reduce your fertility. It can also affect both your health and the health of your developing baby. Being overweight or obese is linked to miscarriage, diabetes in pregnancy, blood pressure problems and development problems in your baby. Being underweight can also reduce your fertility and lead to complications during pregnancy.

Use our body mass index (BMI) calculator to work out if you’re a healthy weight for your height. If you’re overweight, you can improve your chances of getting pregnant and having a healthy pregnancy by losing weight. Aim to lose weight through a combination of a healthy diet and being more active. If you’re struggling to gain or lose weight, speak to your GP. They may refer you to a dietician for help and advice if you need extra support.

Healthy diet for pregnancy

There isn’t any special diet you need to eat if you’re trying to get pregnant. But it’s good to be as healthy as you can be before pregnancy, partly by following a healthy, balanced diet. This includes eating plenty of fruit and veg, and basing meals around starchy foods (ideally wholegrain).

Make sure you’re getting lots of iron-rich foods because this might help to reduce your risk of developing anaemia if you do get pregnant. Iron-rich foods include red meat, lentils, green vegetables and fortified cereals. It’s important to get enough calcium too. Dairy foods and fortified dairy-free alternatives are good sources.

Foods to avoid during pregnancy

There are certain foods and drinks you should avoid when pregnant. They may be more likely to cause food poisoning or contain substances that could be harmful to your baby. It’s a good idea to be aware of these before pregnancy, so you can plan to avoid them when you may be pregnant.

Foods to avoid if you’re pregnant or could be pregnant, include:

  • raw or undercooked meat, fish and eggs (including undercooked ready meals) – always make sure that these are well-cooked and piping hot all the way through
  • pâté (meat, fish or vegetable)
  • unpasteurised milk or milk products
  • raw shellfish, such as prawns
  • unripened soft cheeses, such as Brie, Camembert or blue-veined cheese (like Stilton)
  • unwashed fruit and vegetables
  • liver or liver products
  • fish that contain large amounts of mercury, such as shark, swordfish and marlin (limit tuna to four medium-sized cans or two fresh steaks a week)

It used to be advised that you should avoid peanuts in pregnancy. This is no longer the case as there’s no good evidence that peanuts will affect your baby. It’s fine to eat peanuts when you’re pregnant.

Caffeine

If you have too much caffeine when you’re pregnant, it can potentially harm your baby. If you’re pregnant or could be pregnant, it’s best to limit the amount you have each day to no more than 200mg. This is equal to having roughly two mugs of instant coffee, three mugs of tea, two or three ‘energy drinks’ or five cans of cola.

Products that have a high level of caffeine added to them – such as energy drinks – must display this on the label. But be aware that natural caffeine-containing products, like tea, coffee or chocolate, don’t have to display this.

Supplements for pregnancy

Folic acid

It's important to start taking folic acid when you decide to try for a baby. You’ll usually need to take 400 micrograms (400mcg) a day for the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. This reduces the risk of your baby having a neural tube defect (NTD), such as spina bifida.

You may need to take a bigger dose of folic acid, 5 milligrams (5mg), if you’re assessed as being at higher risk of having a baby with an NTD. This may be if you’re obese, if you have certain health conditions, such as diabetes, or if you take anti-epileptic medicines. You might also need a higher dose of folic acid if you have an NTD, have a partner with an NTD or had a previous pregnancy affected by NTD. Your GP or midwife will tell you if you need the higher dose.

Vitamin D

Your body produces vitamin D naturally when you expose your skin to the sun. You can also get small amounts of it from your diet, but it’s difficult to get enough from these sources alone. If you’re not getting enough vitamin D, it can affect your baby’s growth.

It’s recommended that you take 10mcg of vitamin D a day throughout pregnancy. It can be a good idea to start this before you’re pregnant to make sure you have enough vitamin D. You can buy pregnancy supplements that contain the right amount of both folic acid and vitamin D from most pharmacies and supermarkets.

Vitamin A

Make sure any supplements you take don’t contain vitamin A or fish liver oils. If you get pregnant, too much vitamin A can be dangerous for your growing baby.

Other changes to make before pregnancy

Smoking

If you smoke or have a partner who does, quitting before pregnancy can help to increase your chances of getting pregnant. Smoking is linked to reduced ovulation and problems with sperm quality. It’s best to stop smoking altogether if you’re planning to have a baby. If you do smoke when you’re pregnant, it can affect your baby’s development, as well as damage your own health.

If you need support or advice on stopping smoking, talk to your pharmacist, practice nurse or GP. They may be able to refer you to a stop smoking service.

Alcohol

Alcohol can harm your baby and the more you drink, the greater the risks. The greatest risks seem to be in the first trimester, and in people who drink more than 1 to 2 units a day. There’s no clear safe level though. So, it’s safest if you don’t drink alcohol at all while you’re trying to get pregnant and throughout your pregnancy. If you need support in stopping drinking or reducing your alcohol intake, talk to your GP or midwife. They may be able to refer you for specialist help.

Recreational drugs

If you’re taking drugs such as cocaine or cannabis, you should stop before you try to get pregnant. They can cause serious health and development problems for your baby. If you need support to give up drugs, talk to your GP or contact a local support group or service. Make sure you’re using reliable contraception until you have given up.

Medicines

If you’re taking any medicines, tell your GP or pharmacist that you’re planning to try for a baby. This is important whether they’re medicines prescribed by a doctor or over-the-counter medicines. Some medicines can affect your chances of conceiving, as well as the development of your baby.

Generally, it's best to take as few medicines as possible when you’re trying to get pregnant. This includes herbal medicines. But don’t stop taking any prescribed medicines without advice from your GP because this could put your health at risk.

Hazards at work

Some jobs can be risky if you’re trying to get pregnant. If you’re exposed to substances that might be harmful – for example, chemicals or radioactive substances – get advice about your safety. Also do this if you’re likely to come into contact with either animals or people with infections. Speak to your employer or whoever handles health and safety in your workplace.

Things to discuss with your GP

Any medical conditions

Some long-term health problems, such as epilepsy or diabetes, or the treatments for them may affect your baby’s health and development. In turn, pregnancy may have an impact on these conditions. Mental health conditions, such as depression can affect your pregnancy too. Pregnancy can also worsen mental health problems. If you have a health condition, speak to your GP before you start trying for a baby, to get the right pre-pregnancy care.

Genetic counselling

If you have a health condition that runs in your family – for example, Huntington's disease or cystic fibrosis – or you have a partner who does, tell your GP. They may refer you for genetic testing and counselling to assess the risk of passing the condition on to your baby.

Immunisations

Check if you’ve had all the immunisations you need to have a healthy pregnancy and protect your baby. These include the following.

  • Rubella (German measles). If you catch rubella while you’re pregnant, it can cause some potentially serious problems for you and your baby. If you haven’t been vaccinated against rubella before, your GP should offer you the MMR vaccination. Wait at least a month after you’ve had the MMR vaccination before you try to get pregnant.
  • Hepatitis B. If you’re at high risk of contracting hepatitis B, your GP may offer you vaccination.
  • Varicella (chickenpox). Your GP may offer varicella vaccination if you haven’t had chickenpox or shingles before and you’re likely to come into contact with it. This may include if you’re a health professional and have direct contact with people who may have the infection. Ask your GP or occupational health department for more information.

Advice for male partners

Problems with fertility in men affect three in 10 couples struggling to conceive.

To be in the best health possible and to have high-quality sperm, you can do the following.

  • If you smoke, stop. Smoking can lower the quality of your sperm and your sperm count.
  • Be a healthy weight. If you’re very overweight, it can reduce your fertility.
  • If you drink alcohol, stay within the recommended alcohol limits per week. Drinking to excess can affect the quality of your sperm.
  • Keep your testicles as cool as possible as sperm production can be affected by high temperatures. It may help to wear loose fitting underwear, although there’s no definite evidence on this.

Frequently asked questions



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  • Discover other helpful health information websites.

    • Pre-conception – advice and management. NICE Clinical Knowledge Summaries. cks.nice.org.uk, last revised March 2021
    • Fertility problems: assessment and treatment. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). www.nice.org.uk, last updated 6 September 2017
    • Stopping contraception. Tommy's. tommys.org, last reviewed 5 June 2018
    • Pre-pregnancy counselling. Patient. patient.info, last edited 1 November 2020
    • Pregnancy and giving birth after a caesarean section. Tommy's. tommys.org, last reviewed 16 July 2021
    • How to get pregnant. Tommy's. tommys.org, last reviewed 5 June 2018
    • Pregnancy. Oxford Handbook of General Practice. Oxford Medicine Online. oxfordmedicine.com, published online June 2020
    • Antenatal care – uncomplicated pregnancy. NICE Clinical Knowledge Summaries. cks.nice.org.uk, last revised June 2021
    • Food additives. Food Standards Agency. food.gov.uk, last updated 14 October 2019
    • Vitamin D and health. Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition, 2016. gov.uk
    • UK Chief Medical Officers’ low risk drinking guidelines. Department of Health, August 2016. gov.uk
    • Infertility. Background information. NICE Clinical Knowledge Summaries. cks.nice.org.uk, last revised August 2018
  • Reviewed by Pippa Coulter, Freelance Health Editor, July 2021
    Expert reviewer, Dr Samantha Wild, General Practitioner, Bupa UK and Michelle Sheridan, Midwife, Bupa UK
    Next review due July 2024

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