Nutrition and Exercise
Pregnant women have additional needs for protein, calories, and certain vitamins and minerals, so their diets should be carefully monitored by a qualified practitioner. Special attention should be paid to getting enough folic acid (found in dark leafy greens), iron (dried fruits, meats, legumes, liver, egg yolks), calcium (nonfat or low-fat dairy products, some canned fish), and fluids. Vitamin supplements can correct some deficiencies, but there is no true substitute for a well-balanced diet. Starting January 1, 1998, manufacturers of breads, pastas, rice, and other grain products were required to add folic acid to their products in a move to help reduce neural tube defects in newborns. Folic acid, when consumed before and during early pregnancy, reduces the risk of spina bifida, a common disabling birth condition resulting from failure of the spinal column to close. Babies born to mothers whose nutrition has been poor run high risks of substandard mental and physical development.
Weight gain during pregnancy helps nourish a growing baby. For a woman of normal weight before pregnancy, the recommended weight gain during pregnancy is 25-35 pounds. For obese or overweight women, 15-25 pounds are recommended. If one is underweight prior to pregnancy, a goal of 28-40 pounds is acceptable. Women carrying twins should gain about 35-45 pounds. Gaining too much or too little weight can lead to complications. With higher weight gains, women may develop gestational diabetes, hypertension, or increased risk of delivery complications. Gaining too little weight can increase the chances of delivering a low-birth-weight baby.
Of the total number of pounds gained during pregnancy, about 6-8 are the baby’s weight. The baby’s birth-weight is important, since low weight can mean health problems during labor and the baby’s first few months. Pregnancy is not the time to think about losing weight – doing so may endanger the baby.
As in all other stages of life, exercise is an important factor in weight control during pregnancy as well as in overall maternal health. In one study a balanced 45-minute exercise session three days per week was associated with heavier-birth weight babies, fewer surgical births, and shorter hospital stays after birth. Pregnant women should consult their physicians before starting any exercise program.
Other Factors
A pregnant woman should avoid exposure to toxic chemicals, heavy metals, pesticides, gases, and other hazardous compounds. She should not clean cat-litter boxes because cat feces can contain organisms that cause a disease called toxoplasmosis. If a pregnant woman contracts this disease, her baby may be stillborn or suffer mental retardation or other birth defects.
Before becoming pregnant, a woman should be tested to determine if she has had rubella (German measles). If she has not had the disease, she should get an immunization for it and wait the recommended length of time before becoming pregnant. A rubella infection can kill the fetus or cause blindness or hearing disorders in the infant. If the woman has ever had genital herpes, she should inform her physician. The physician may want to deliver the baby by cesarean section, especially if the woman has active lesions. Contact with an active herpes infection during birth can be fatal to the infant.
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