Two lines. Clear as day on the pregnancy test kit. And just like that, a flood of emotions overwhelms you. There’s joy and excitement, of course … but there’s also a tinge of worry and apprehension. And that’s only understandable: as many as 26% of all pregnancies end with miscarriage, 6% of global births — that’s 7.9 million infants — are born with severe congenital disabilities, and an estimated 240,000 newborns die worldwide within 28 days of birth every year due to congenital disorders (1, 2, 3). Those are Scary (yes, with a capital “S”) statistics. But to loosely quote Roy T. Bennet, “Instead of worrying about what you cannot control, shift your energy to what you can.”
So, here are the seven things you can do to increase your chances of having a healthy pregnancy and baby.
#1: Get regular prenatal checkups
First and arguably most important: seek early and regular prenatal care. For the uninitiated, prenatal care is medical care — involving medical checkups and screening tests — you get during pregnancy. Research consistently shows that pregnant individuals who failed to receive prenatal care are more likely to have a low-birth-weight infant (weighing less than 2,500 grams) and experience pregnancy complications, including pre-term labor and placental abruption (4, 5, 6, 7, 8). So, make sure to make your first prenatal appointment as soon as you find out you’re pregnant.
For a healthy pregnancy, your prenatal healthcare provider will likely see you on the following recommended schedule (9):
- Weeks 4 to 28: Once every four weeks
- Weeks 28 to 26: Once every two weeks
- Weeks 36 to 40: Once weekly
#2: Take a prenatal vitamin
It’s 100% possible to meet your nutritional needs during pregnancy through a healthy, well-balanced diet. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Biologically female individuals of reproductive age (15 to 49 years) are known to be deficient in a myriad of micronutrients crucial for maintaining a healthy pregnancy, from iodine to vitamin A to folate to iron (10, 11, 12). Bottom line: if you’re pregnant, a prenatal supplement is likely critical; it could help fill in those nutrient gaps caused by your packed-to-the-brim schedule (who has time to cook these days?) and/or diet preferences. Key “pregnancy super-nutrients” to look out for are:
- Folic acid (aka folate): A B vitamin that helps prevent neural tube defects (i.e., brain and spinal cord defects) in the baby. The American College Of Obstetrics and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends pregnant individuals take 600 mg of folic acid daily (13).
- Iron: Supports the development of the fetus and placenta, plus prevents anemia in pregnant individuals. ACOG recommends pregnant individuals take 27 mg of iron daily (14).
- Calcium: Helps build your baby's bones and teeth. Here's a somewhat unsettling fact: if you don't get enough calcium during pregnancy, your body will draw the mineral from your bones to provide for your baby. Get 1,200 mg of calcium daily to prevent that from happening (15).
- Vitamin D: Reduces the risk of pre-eclampsia (a serious blood pressure condition that can occur after 20 weeks of pregnancy), low birth weight, and pre-term birth. Psst: if you don’t get much sunlight, Dr. Danielle’s Vitamin D3 + B12 Gummies can help you get your daily recommended intake of this “sunshine vitamin” with ease (16).
#3: Keep an eye on your weight gain
Contrary to popular belief, you shouldn’t eat for two during pregnancy. Doing so increases your risk of gaining excess weight during pregnancy, which, in turn, puts you and your baby at risk for health problems during and post-pregnancy (17, 18, 19, 20). These could include gestational diabetes, fetal macrosomia (i.e., a larger-than-average fetus, which increases the odds of an assisted birth), and pre-term labor.
Exactly how much should you eat, though? In pregnant individuals without obesity, the Institute of Medicine recommends an increase of energy intake by 340 to 450 calories only during the second and third trimesters (21). If you have obesity, you’ll likely need to work closely with your prenatal healthcare provider to determine your energy needs during pregnancy. Now, at this point, you may be thinking, “340 to 450 calories is pretty low.” Well, you're right. One Snickers bar comes in at 229 calories (22). This, in turn, highlights the importance of prioritizing lower energy-dense foods, including minimally processed foods and satiating protein, in your diet. Ideally, you should get 46 grams of protein daily in the first trimester and 71 grams daily during the second and third trimesters (23).
#4: Stay physically active
A common (and honestly worrying) misconception about pregnancy is that exercise is off-limits. As it turns out, that couldn’t be further from the truth. A large body of evidence supports exercise’s health benefits on both mother and baby during pregnancy — namely, but not limited to, a lower risk of (24, 25, 26):
- Excessive weight gain
- Gestational diabetes
- Delivery complications
- Urinary incontinence
Of course, this isn't to say you're free to exercise as you see fit. Ensure you get the go-ahead from your prenatal healthcare provider before starting an exercise program. And if you're new to working out, start slow. Pregnancy isn’t a time to push your limits. According to ACOG, pregnant individuals should do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity (psst: brisk walking counts!) weekly (27). Now, if you are no stranger to vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity (e.g., running), it's generally OK for you to continue. That said, as always, it's still best to seek clearance from your prenatal healthcare provider. Only they have the medical expertise to deem what's suitable or not for your pregnancy.
#5: Care for your gut health
The healthier your gut health, the healthier your baby’s gut health. Or, at least, that’s what a 2018 study published in Microbiome suggests (28). A later 2020 study published in Gut Microbes agrees, finding that maternal diet shapes the pregnant individual's gut microbiome, which then affects the baby's gut microbial community and infant growth during the first 18 months of life (29). And taking care of your gut health isn’t just good for your baby, either. Recent research has also found a correlation between "poorer" maternal gut health and increased risk of pregnancy complications, including gestational diabetes, obesity, and pre-eclampsia (30).
As for how you could improve your gut health during pregnancy, here are a few guidelines:
- Eat a diverse range of foods that are primarily made up of lots of fiber-rich vegetables, legumes, beans, and fruit (31, 32, 33, 34)
- Consider taking probiotic supplements, such as Dr. Danielle’s Probiotics (rest assured, probiotics do not appear to pose any safety concerns for pregnant individuals) (38)
#6: Actively seek out social support
Health during pregnancy isn’t just about physical health. There's also the emotional side of it — and, as we all know, those pregnancy hormones can really take you on a rollercoaster ride. You could be blissfully happy one minute and teary and snappy the next. In fact, you may even develop depression during pregnancy (otherwise known as antenatal depression, which affects 10% to 20% of pregnant individuals in the United States) (39). Social support could help you better navigate the ups and downs of pregnancy. More specifically, it could lower your risk of experiencing depressive or anxiety symptoms and adverse birth outcomes (40, 41).
Here are a few tips that’ll help strengthen your social support:
- Make time to catch up with your family members (this includes your spouse!)
- Volunteer with community groups and organizations
- Check in with your neighbors
- Take advantage of technology and make friends with fellow moms-to-be on social media (e.g., forums or Facebook groups)
#7: Calm those anxious nerves
It's only normal to feel stressed during pregnancy. But prolonged bouts of stress could negatively impact your and your baby's health (42, 43, 44, 45). For example, chronic stress has been shown to increase blood pressure, potentially increasing your risk for pre-eclampsia and pre-term labor. High-stress levels could also suppress your immune system — increasing your susceptibility to infections. And moving on to your little one: research shows that cortisol, i.e., the stress hormone, could cross the placenta, affecting the part of your baby's brain that regulates their sleep-wake cycle. This could adversely affect their development and increase their chances of developing emotional problems in adulthood (46, 47).
Now, while you cannot eliminate stressors, you could find ways to manage them. Stress-busting strategies include meditation, exercising, prioritizing getting restful sleep, journaling, and deep breathing (48).
Don't be afraid to seek professional help
Pregnancy is a time of significant changes. As much as you're excited about welcoming a new addition to the family, you must also deal with an undercurrent of conflicting emotions, from anxiety to straight-out fear (especially if you have dealt with loss before). If it's all starting to feel too much, even with the support of your loved ones, don't be afraid of reaching out to a licensed mental health professional who could help provide a safe space for you to talk about and safely navigate the concerns you have during pregnancy.