You’re thinking of starting a family. Of course, you want to do the best for your baby-to-be and you know all about not smoking and drinking during pregnancy, but there’s nothing you need to do until you’re actually pregnant is there? Well yes, there is – preconception changes can help you conceive and give your baby-to-be a better chance.
The crucial element in the conception of a baby, it is very easy for sex to stop being fun and become a chore. This can build into a vicious circle, whereby you get uptight about sex, you don’t feel like doing it and so don’t conceive, and then get more uptight about making babies. So keep sex recreational, always remembering that the more often you do it, the more likely you are to conceive. Enjoy!
Eggs and Sperm
A baby girl is born with all her immature eggs already in her ovaries. Once she has grown up and started menstruating, every month one or more of these eggs mature and are released (known as ovulation) into the Fallopian tubes, which lead to the uterus (womb). This happens around the middle of a woman’s cycle (see The Fertile Period, below) and if the sperm meet an egg at this point, conception is likely. Men constantly produce sperm in their testicles throughout their fertile lives and each sperm takes seven weeks to make. Consequently, sperm are more at risk of being damaged or adversely affected by poisons, such as alcohol, tobacco, and drugs, or by stress than the egg is, so it is especially important for the father-to-be to be a clean-living chap.
The Fertile Period
This is when a woman is ovulating and is therefore most likely to conceive. Most women find that they ovulate midway between periods, but if you want to know how to pinpoint it more exactly, ask for Patient Support Sheet Contraception, which contains further details. Other signs of fertility are:
* Increase in sexual desire – feeling sexy at this time is your body telling you it’s a good time to conceive.
* Increase in vaginal mucus – this starts to happen about six days before ovulation. You are likely to feel quite wet.
Diet & Exercise
Research has found that a high folic acid intake before and through the beginning of pregnancy reduces the chances of a baby suffering from spina bifida. Folic acid is found in peas and bananas, but the recommended intake is 400 micrograms a day, which is difficult to get from just food, so supplements are recommended. In addition, both of you should avoid junk food and eat lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, choosing organic or free-range whenever possible – it is likely that the chemicals and hormones in many junk foods and intensively- farmed foods can have an adverse affect on fertility, especially if you are borderline. Weight-gain during pregnancy can put a lot of strain on your joints and heart, so it is best to make sure that you are at, or near, your ideal weight before you get pregnant. Getting fit before pregnancy is a good idea, but don’t over do it or you may stop ovulating.
Ideally, both of you should cut out alcohol completely, but this can be very difficult, especially if it takes you a few months to conceive. Therefore, try and cut down the amount you drink, and stick to wine or beer (less damaging than spirits). It is extra important for the man to cut down on the alcohol because sperm are constantly being made (see Eggs & Sperm, above). For the woman, the really crucial time is the week or so just before ovulation.
Smoking & Drugs
The best advice is don’t, especially the man. Fathers-to-be who smoke increase the chances of their child suffering a childhood cancer, and the poisons in tobacco affect fertility and may damage the sperm, egg, or resulting child. Hard drugs, such as cocaine and heroine, damage sperm and eggs, while cannabis reduces sperm numbers and makes them very sluggish. Prescription drugs may affect fertility and a developing baby – check with your GP.
General Health (for the mother-to-be)
* Rubella (German measles) and toxoplasmosis – if caught during pregnancy both these may cause the baby to miscarry or become blind, so checking to see if you are immune beforehand is a good idea – ask your doctor.
* Multiple sclerosis – if you have MS it may get worse, although some cases stay stable or even improve.
* Diabetes – if you have diabetes, your symptoms may worsen during pregnancy. Discuss this possibility with your GP. If there is diabetes in your family or you are very overweight, you may be at risk of gestational diabetes.
Inherited diseases tend to fall in to two groups. Those caused by recessive genes, when both genes in a pair are unhealthy (you have to inherit an unhealthy gene from each of your parents and they will probably have had no symptoms). Examples include cystic fibrosis and haemophilia. Diseases caused by dominant genes are rarer than those caused by recessive genes and happen when an unhealthy gene over-rides its healthy pair. Genetically- based health problems can also happen if the sperm, egg, or developing baby have become damaged or gone wrong somehow – Down’s syndrome is one example – but these problems are not inheritable. If you are worried about anything in your family history, ask your doctor to refer you to a genetic counsellor for further investigation.
Lifestyle & Environment
* Workplace – exposure to lead and other heavy metals, radiation, heat, solvents, pesticides and other chemicals, and infections, and jobs such as welding, professional driving, laboratory work, garage work, and some jobs in the chemical and nuclear industries have all been linked to fertility problems.
* Stress & lack of time – stress is something we are increasingly familiar with, and can interfere with your ability to make a baby (it can send a woman’s cycle haywire and reduce the amount of sperm a man makes), as well as your ability to be an effective parent afterwards. If you’re not happy making changes are you ready for a baby?
* Finance – most families spend between 15-25% of their income on child-related expenses, regardless of how many children they have or how much they earn. While raising children in poverty is no fun at all, it can also be very stressful to find that having waited until the right time (financially), you then find it difficult to conceive.
* Child-care & support networks – many people nowadays do not have close-knit families and life-long circle of friends and acquaintances that can make the transition into parenthood easier. Considering your options before pregnancy gives you time to find out what’s available and to create new support networks in your immediate area.
* Pets – a pet is often a cherished member of the family and a new baby can put a pet’s nose right out of joint, which can result in your pet behaving “badly” in a bid to get your attention. Considering how to minimise problems before they happen is wise – contact the Cat Protection League (see below) for their excellent leaflet on cats and babies. Regrettably no one seems to do one for dogs, but the advice in the cat leaflet can apply to both.
STDs & Pelvic Infections
Many STDs can cause fertility problems, especially in women, as can pelvic inflammatory disease. Many women who have had a previous abortion often worry about infertility, especially if they don’t conceive immediately, but there is no need to worry unless the abortion resulted in a pelvic infection.
What if pregnancy doesn’t happen?
People who haven’t conceived after a year of trying (six months if the woman is 30 or over) should see their GP. Most people who have problems conceiving aren’t infertile, but sub-fertile, which means that they have low fertility. Changes to your lifestyle can help in many cases, and there are a variety of fertility treatments available.