Giving Your Baby a Healthy Head Start

You’ve probably heard the tall tales surrounding pregnancy and food. Some will tell you—usually those without children—that pregnant women are overcome by cravings, rabid for peculiar culinary concoctions, such as chocolate-dipped fried pickles drowning in banana pudding. Others may relay the sordid story of the pregnant vegetarian whose unborn baby had a craving for meat—and lots of it.

Pregnancy Primer

  • Alcohol and pregnancy a dangerous cocktail.

  • What's happening to my body? Weird (but common) physical changes women encounter during pregnancy.

  • Pregnancy do's and don'ts.

  • How to exercise safely during pregnancy.
  • Yes, your taste buds may change during pregnancy—though we doubt the pickles-and-pudding dish will become a dietary staple—but this is nothing abnormal or distressing. What’s important is to remember that everything you consume or inhale while pregnant will be passed through to the fetus. This begins as soon as you conceive, and the embryo is most vulnerable during the first two months, when major organs and body parts—arms, legs, hands, heart, liver, eyes, brain and genitalia—are just starting to form.

    Carrying a baby for nine months is adelicate dance, one filled with potential missteps and pitfalls. Fortunately, you can give your baby a healthy start by making the right decisions when it comes to diet, exercise and sleep. Here’s what you need to know.

    Eat a Balanced Diet

    Pregnant women need more calories and essential nutrients than other woman. Essentially, they are feeding their own bodies while supporting the growth of their baby. To ensure that a baby’s tissues and organs develop normally, especially during the first few months of pregnancy, proper nourishment in the form of food and vitamin supplements is crucial.

    Remember these tips for healthful eating the next time you visit the supermarket:

    • Pack a protein punch. Protein is essential to the buildup of your uterus, breasts, blood supply and baby’s tissues. Low protein intake can result in low birth weight and other health problems. Good sources of protein: lean meat, fish, nuts, soy, dried beans and lentils.

    • Bone up on calcium. Calcium builds and strengthens your baby’s budding bones. All women—whether they’re pregnant or not—should maintain a diet high in calcium-rich foods, such as milk, yogurt and cheese. These foods will keep bones strong and fend off the onset of osteoporosis, a condition that causes bones to become brittle and more prone to fractures. For those who are lactose-intolerant, fulfill your daily calcium needs with canned salmon, sardines, dark-green leafy vegetables and tofu.

    • Pump some iron. Iron is vital to maintaining a healthy blood supply for you and your baby. Researchers have found, however, that about 10 percent of all pregnant women are anemic, meaning their bodies contain inadequate amounts of iron. While a diet high in iron-rich foods—such as liver, shellfish, whole grains and spinach—can meet the iron needs of most pregnant women, others may need iron supplements prescribed by their doctors.

    • Fill up on folate. Folate is instrumental in building and repairing tissue. Pregnant and lactating women require larger amounts of the vitamin because much of the folate they ingest is passed to the fetus or breastfed infant. Low folate levels have been linked to serious birth defects, especially anencephaly and spina bifida. Good sources of folate: dark-green leafy vegetables, dry beans, peas, fortified cereal and whole-grain products.

    • Sayonara, sushi! Avoid eating raw or undercooked fish, meats and eggs. Cook foods to proper temperatures—use a meat thermometer to erase any guesswork—to reduce the chances of you and your baby contracting a bacterial infection. Also be sure to wash your hands thoroughly with soap and warm water after handling raw meat. 

    • Close out caffeine. It’s a good idea to limit your caffeine intake during pregnancy. Caffeine—probably the most popular drug in the world (that’s right, it’s a drug)—can alter sleep patterns tremendously, increasing the time it takes to fall asleep and reducing total sleep time. Considering shuteye is a scarce commodity when you’re pregnant (almost nonexistent after the baby arrives), there’s no need to further fend off Mr. Sandman with unnecessary caffeine.

    Butt Out

    If you smoke and are pregnant, quit immediately. (If you are having trouble kicking the habit, call the American Cancer Society Quit Line at (800) 227-2345 or visit its Web site.) Tobacco use remains the single most preventable cause of death in the
    United States. Sadly, more than 400,000 Americans die each year from tobacco-related disease, reports the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

    If tobacco use wreaks debilitating havoc on adults, just imagine the harm secondhand smoke can inflict on your beloved baby. Because secondhand smoke presents a clear and present danger to all children, the American Academy of Pediatrics strongly urges parents to quit smoking—or at least refrain from doing so in the company of children. Here’s why:

    •  Children of parents who smoke have more respiratory infections, bronchitis, pneumonia and reduced pulmonary function than children of nonsmokers.

    • More than 60 percent of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), also known as crib death, could be prevented if people stopped smoking around their babies or pregnant women, reports the British Medical Journal.

    • Infants born to women who smoked during pregnancy are more likely to have a lower birth weight than those born to non-smoking women.

    • Secondhand smoke is responsible for between 150,000 and 300,000 lower respiratory tract infections in infants and children under 18 months of age annually, resulting in between 7,500 and 15,000 hospitalizations each year, estimates the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

    • Between 200,000 and 1,000,000 children with asthma have their condition made worse by exposure to secondhand smoke, reports the EPA.

    Get on the Wagon

    Excessive alcohol intake during pregnancy increases the risk of miscarriage. It can also cause a serious condition known as fetal alcohol syndrome, which is the leading cause of birth defects and mental retardation. Even moderate drinking during pregnancy can cause learning and other disabilities that may not be revealed until a child is school-age, reports a new study published in the journal “Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research”.

    In light of these new findings, many medical associations are urging pregnant women to refrain from even the occasional glass of wine. The American Academy of Pediatrics released a statement on the subject recently, stating: “Because there is no known safe amount of alcohol consumption during pregnancy, the Academy recommends abstinence from alcohol for women who are pregnant or who are planning a pregnancy.”

    If you are struggling with alcohol, contact your local Alcoholics Anonymous chapter or visit the association’s Web site.