Why preconception health matters
At the Allegheny Health Network, we understand the importance of a woman’s health before she becomes pregnant. Preconception health means knowing how health conditions and risk factors could affect a woman or her unborn baby if she becomes pregnant. For example, some foods, habits and medicines can harm your baby — even before he or she is conceived. Some health problems, such as diabetes, also can affect pregnancy.
One reason preconception health is important is that half of all pregnancies are not planned. Unplanned pregnancies are at greater risk of preterm birth and low birth weight babies. Another reason is that, despite important advances in medicine and prenatal care and research, about 1 in 8 babies is born too early.
By taking action on health issues and risks before pregnancy, you can prevent problems that might affect you or your baby later.
Five important ways to boost your preconception health
AHN believes women and men should prepare for pregnancy before becoming sexually active — at least three months before getting pregnant. Some actions, such as quitting smoking, reaching a healthy weight or adjusting medicines you are using, should start even earlier. The five most important things you can do for preconception health are:
- Take 400 to 800 micrograms (400 to 800 mcg or 0.4 to 0.8 mg) of folic acid every day if you are planning on or capable of becoming pregnant to lower your risk of some birth defects of the brain and spine, including spina bifida. All women need folic acid every day. Talk to your doctor about your folic acid needs. Some doctors prescribe prenatal vitamins that contain higher amounts of folic acid.
- If you smoke, quit. If you drink alcohol, stop. If you need support doing either, your doctor can provide you with resources to help.
- If you have a medical condition, be sure it is under control. Some conditions that can affect pregnancy or be affected by it include asthma, diabetes, oral health, obesity or epilepsy.
- Talk to your doctor about any over-the-counter and prescription medicines you are using. These include dietary or herbal supplements. Be sure your vaccinations are up to date.
- Avoid contact with toxic substances or materials at work and at home. Stay away from chemicals and cat or rodent feces. Have someone else clean the litter box.
Your partner's role in preparing for pregnancy
Your partner can and should support and encourage you in every aspect of preparing for pregnancy. Make the decision about pregnancy together. When both partners intend for a pregnancy to happen, a woman is much more likely to get early prenatal care and avoid risky behaviors like smoking and drinking alcohol.
Five things a partner can do to help his or her partner’s healthy pregnancy:
- Screen for and treat sexually transmitted infections (STI) to make sure infections are not passed to female partners.
- Male partners can improve their own reproductive health and overall health by limiting alcohol, quitting smoking or illegal drug use, making healthy food choices, and reducing stress. Studies show that men who drink a lot, smoke or use drugs can have problems with their sperm. These might cause you to have problems getting pregnant.
- Suggest that your partner quit smoking. If they won’t quit, ask that they not smoke around you, to avoid the harmful effects of secondhand smoke on you and your baby.
- Your partner should also talk to a doctor about their own health, family health history, and any medicines he/she uses.
- Those who work with chemicals or other toxins should be careful not to expose women to them. For example, people who work with fertilizers or pesticides should change out of dirty clothes before coming near women. Handle and wash soiled clothes separately.
Genetic counseling: What it is and who needs it
Genetic counseling gives information and support to people who have — or may be at risk of — genetic disorders. Some reasons a person or family might seek genetic counseling are:
- a family history of a genetic condition, birth defect, chromosomal disorder or cancer
- two or more pregnancy losses, a stillbirth, or a baby who died
- they have a child with a known inherited disorder, birth defect, mental retardation or developmental delay
- a woman who is pregnant or plans to become pregnant at 35 years of age or older
- test results suggest a genetic condition is present
- increased risk of getting or passing on a genetic disorder because of your ethnic background
people related by blood who want to have children together
Allegheny Health Network genetics professionals can meet with a person or family before or during pregnancy to discuss genetic risks or to diagnose, confirm or rule out a genetic condition. Most of the time, testing can find changes linked to genetic disorders. The results can confirm or rule out a genetic condition. Tests can also help to know the chances that a person will get or pass on a genetic disorder. Our genetics professionals can help you decide if genetic testing is the right choice for you.
We also offer a variety of screening vehicles to make sure your pregnancy is a healthy one:
- Amniocentesis (second trimester)
- Chorionic villus sampling (first trimester)
- Fetal ultrasound evaluation (basic and targeted)
- Maternal serum screening and cytogenetic studies
Our geneticists and OB/GYN physicians are board-certified in clinical genetics. Our perinatologists (specialists in maternal-fetal medicine) are also available for consultation for general genetic issues and for guidance in cases of discovered birth defects.
- Genetic Consultation - This publication explains what a genetic consultation is, why you might need one, what happens during the consultation, and how you can find a genetic counselor in your area.
- Genetic Counseling (Copyright © Nemours Foundation) - This publication offers information on what a genetic counselor is and who should see one. It also explains what to expect before and after a counseling session and how to find a counselor.
- Genetic Testing: What You Should Know (Copyright © American Academy of Family Physicians) - This publication provides information on genetic testing, including what it is, who should be tested and where to go to find out more information.
- Preconception Care - The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hosts this Internet site as their main portal to finding information on preconception care.
- Pregnancy Information Center, CDC - If you're pregnant or planning to get pregnant, you probably have a lot of questions. This website will help you learn how to be healthy (before, during and after pregnancy) and give your baby a healthy start to life.
- Trying to Get Pregnant: Genetic Counseling (Copyright © March of Dimes) - This publication provides information on genetic counseling and explains who would benefit from genetic counseling, what to expect during a consultation and where to find a genetic counselor.
Connect with other organizations
- March of Dimes
- National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities, CDC
- National Human Genome Research Institute, NIH, HHS
- National Office of Public Health Genomics, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- National Society of Genetic Counselors
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
- Cade Foundation