The choices you make while you’re pregnant play a major role in the health of your baby, as well as affecting your own health and comfort during your pregnancy. An author and certified natural childbirth educator shows how simple diet and lifestyle changes can constitute the four components needed to set you on the R.O.A.D. to a healthy pregnancy, birth and baby.
Most new parents ask the same question. “What can I do to make sure my baby is healthy?”
The answer to this question starts long before birth. The choices you make while you’re pregnant play a major role in the health of your baby, as well as your own health and comfort during your pregnancy.
Many women feel “miserable” throughout their pregnancies. About 50 percent of pregnant moms experience morning sickness, one out of four will have a cesarean section, and the United States has one of the worst infant mortality rates among industrialized nations. The long-term effects of these problems on our children are just now being researched and understood.
Many of the complications and discomforts experienced during pregnancy and birth are preventable, if you’re willing to make some simple changes in your diet and lifestyle.
The four components to having a healthy pregnancy, birth and baby are Relaxation, Options, Activity, and Diet: the “ROAD.” No matter what type of birth you are planning to have, these steps will help you and your baby be healthier.
Relaxation is a key part of good general health, as well as essential for moms planning a natural birth. Stress can be harmful to the baby, but relaxation helps counter that effect. The ability to become completely relaxed mentally, emotionally, and physically interrupts the fear-tension-pain cycle that causes the need for drugs during labor. The ability to relax at will is also handy when raising children!
Deep relaxation is a skill that must be learned and practiced to be truly effective. Many women already practice daily meditation or prenatal yoga, which gives them a great head start. Even these women will benefit from learning new techniques and practicing them daily, preferably with the help of their husband or someone else who will be able to act as “coach” during labor. A great exercise to help you feel relaxed is progressive relaxation.
Begin by finding a comfortable position, such as lying on your side with your top leg supported by pillows or sitting as if in a contour chair supported by pillows (a recliner also works, if you have one). If you are working with a coach, have him read this to you. “Close your eyes. Take a nice, deep breath and let it out slowly. Take another slow breath, and release. One more breath, and as you let it go, imagine yourself standing under a gentle waterfall. Feel your head relax as the water touches it. Feel the water run down over your neck and shoulders, as they release and relax. The water flows down your arms and off the tips of your fingers, drawing the worries of the day away. As the water cascades over your chest and belly, feel how your baby relaxes as you let go. Water flows down your legs, your feet, and off your toes, leaving your entire body loose, limp, and relaxed.”
Stay in this relaxed state for a few minutes and enjoy it. When finished, take some deep breaths and wiggle your toes and fingers before getting up.
It’s important that expecting moms educate themselves about labor and birth. Researching options helps couples feel confident that they are making the right choices. Also, knowing the options helps avoid fear and surprise if complications occur.
Try the following to keep your options open:
- Learn relaxation, stay active, and eat a good diet to stay healthy and low-risk. This makes more choices available to you.
- Research pregnancy and birth through independent sources, such as books, newspapers, the Internet and so on. Some great books to start with are The Birth Book by Dr. William and Martha Sears, The Thinking Woman’s Guide to a Better Birth by Henci Goer, and Natural Childbirth the Bradley Way by Susan McCutcheon.
- Attend childbirth classes, preferably those offered outside a hospital. Classes offered by a hospital often teach to that hospital’s procedures instead of offering information on all the options available.
- Make a birth plan and discuss it with your doctor or midwife before labor occurs. Bring a few copies with you during labor.
- Be flexible when health professionals recommend procedures-remember there is a good reason they are suggested, even if you disagree with them.
- Practice informed consent. In the event that complications occur, knowing what a proposed procedure involves will help you and your coach weigh the benefits and risks and make a good decision.
- If it is not an emergency, ask for a second opinion if you disagree with the recommendation of your care provider.
- Ask questions whenever you don’t understand a procedure or its explanation. Parents are ultimately responsible for what happens to their baby, not the doctor or midwife, so be sure you comprehend what is happening.
The A along the R.O.A.D. to a healthy birth stands for Activity. Labor is, as its name implies, hard work. During a long labor, a mother uses about as much energy as a marathon runner or a mountain climber. If you knew that you would have to run a marathon or climb a mountain a few months from now, would you train for it? Of course! Expectant mothers (and their labor coaches!) need to be in good physical shape when the event arrives. It makes labor easier, helps make pregnancy more comfortable, and also gets lots of oxygen to mom and baby.
- Get aerobic exercise daily. ACOG (The American Council of Obstetrics and Gynecologists) recommends 30 minutes of exercise a day for pregnant women. Most moms can keep up their pre-pregnancy workouts with only a few changes. Inactive pregnant women should begin easy, and work up to a moderate level of aerobic exercise. Even 10 minutes a day of walking, swimming or low-impact aerobics is a great start!
- Coaches and moms can exercise together, or coach should at least remind mom to exercise.
- Do stretches designed to make birth easier and pregnancy more comfortable. Contact a childbirth educator if you don’t know any such exercises, or look in Essential Exercises for the Childbearing Year by Elizabeth Noble.
- Strengthen your pelvic floor. This exercise, also called a Kegel exercise, involves consciously tensing and relaxing the muscle that supports the uterus, bladder and other internal organs. The easiest way to become aware of this muscle is by starting and stopping the flow of urine while in the bathroom.
- Avoid lying on your back for longer than two or three minutes after the fourth month of pregnancy.
- Remember to speak with your health care provider before beginning any new exercise routine.
The last part of the R.O.A.D. to a healthy birth and baby is Diet. This does not mean reducing the amount of calories you intake, but eating a good, nutritious diet. The March of Dimes has done a wonderful job publicizing one reason to eat well: preventing spina bifida by having enough folic acid. However, many women are unaware of just how much what they put in their bodies effects their baby. According to Thomas Brewer, MD in his book Metabolic Toxemia of Late Pregnancy, bad eating habits during pregnancy can cause anemia, premature separation of the placenta, severe infection, miscarriage, and metabolic toxemia of late pregnancy (also called pre-eclampsia) in mothers. He also states that poor prenatal nutrition can cause or contribute to prematurity, low birth weight, brain damage, hyperactivity, and stillborn babies, in addition to birth defects.
What constitutes a good pregnancy diet? Dr. Brewer recommends 75 to 100 grams of protein each day from all sources. Along with protein, eat one vitamin C source daily, two to three fruits, two servings of green vegetables, and one yellow/orange vegetable. To prevent excess swelling, salt your food to taste and drink water until your thirst is quenched.
It is also a good idea to replace all refined grains with whole grains, eat as much fresh food as possible (preferably vine-ripened, to get glyconutrients), and take a prenatal supplement for “insurance.” And don’t forget your “diet” of oxygen-take at least three breaks a day to do some deep breathing. Have your husband-coach join you in your healthy diet and making sure you eat well-it makes it easier.
Remember that pregnant women are supposed to gain weight! Eating healthy foods, staying moderately fit and breastfeeding help most women to return to their pre-pregnancy weight after the baby is born. While pregnant, don’t worry about how much you gain, just gain it in a healthy way.
Lastly, remember that diet means not only what goes into your body, but also what doesn’t. Avoid refined foods, excess sugar, food additives, excess caffeine, and drugs of any kind unless prescribed by a doctor who knows you are pregnant. This includes being cautious with herbs-some are harmful during pregnancy. And, of course, don’t drink, smoke, or take illegal drugs while pregnant or caring for a young child.
All pregnancies are different, but the goal is always the same: a healthy mother and a healthy baby. The suggestions in this article have helped many couples navigate the R.O.A.D. of pregnancy successfully to that goal. Becoming a master of Relaxation, learning your Options, staying Active, and consuming a good Diet will help your baby have the best start you can give him or her.