Staying healthy during pregnancy is as important for the expectant mother as for the baby. We spoke to a midwife for her tips on nutrition, exercise, and directions for how to best support someone through pregnancy.
The do's and don'ts of pregnancy
- Do take a multivitamin. When a woman is pregnant, her body has needs which requires more than just an everyday multivitamin. Lee Mackenzie, a registered nurse and midwife, explains “If multivitamins are specific to pregnancy or preconception, they'll have folic acid and iodine. These can prevent neural tube defects and help with healthy brain development.” Mackenzie adds “The other thing that women may need to take is a Vitamin D — they need to speak to their GP and their midwife to see whether they should take a vitamin D supplement.”
- Do get the right amount of sleep. Getting enough sleep is important too. “It's very normal to be tired and fatigued in pregnancy. And especially in the first 12 weeks,” says Mackenzie. “However, too much sleep may indicate low iron levels and anxiety or depression. Mental health is a major concern for midwives, so it’s really important that women talk to us throughout their pregnancy.”
- Don’t smoke, or be around people who are smoking. Midwives and health professionals recommend women don’t smoke, and especially while pregnant. “Cigarettes and passive smoking can cause a stillbirth, premature birth or be a reason why a baby is underweight. It can also cause lung problems, like asthma, as the baby develops.” Mackenzie explains why an underweight baby can have a challenging start in life. “Some women think that having an underweight baby might mean an easier labour, but it can cause a few issues with the baby not coping with the labour. It can also put the baby at risk of long and short-term health problems. So, smoking is a really big thing that we try and get women to quit.”
- Don’t drink alcohol. Drinking can also cause complications, although the full effects aren’t known. “We can't ask pregnant women to drink in order to do studies on drinking alcohol, so we recommend against drinking any alcohol while pregnant, because we can never say that a certain amount is safe,” says Mackenzie. “We do know that it’s linked to higher risk of miscarriage, stillbirth, and premature birth, and that heavy drinking can lead to Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, which brings a whole range of problems. As with smoking, we recommend against drinking any alcohol during pregnancy.”
- Don’t let your body overheat. Mackenzie adds, “We also recommend avoiding being in a hot tub or sauna because they can raise the mother’s core temperature. This can cause some problems, especially in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. Also, some women can faint in high temperatures, and that wouldn’t be good for either her or the baby.”
The MotherSafe website and helpline is an invaluable resource for pregnant women who would like more information or a specific answer to a question their pregnancy.
What to eat when you’re expecting
It’s important to maintain a balanced diet throughout pregnancy, but be on the lookout for listeria — a bacteria found in contaminated foods. Meats must always be cooked thoroughly and raw dairy or soft cheeses avoided.
“Fish is recommended in pregnancy, and it's recommended two to three times a week, if it's not high in mercury,” says Mackenzie. “If a pregnant woman were to go to a seafood restaurant or eat fish at home, they should choose mackerel, snapper, salmon, shellfish, lobster, or whiting, because they’re not high in mercury. But fish such as shark (flake) or catfish have higher levels of mercury, and so should be only eaten once or twice a fortnight.”
It’s not a myth that pregnant women shouldn’t eat sushi and sashimi. “It's really best to avoid raw fish and seafood such as oysters and sushi because they bring with them the risk of salmonella and listeria, which can cause an infection in a pregnant woman,” says Mackenzie. More guidelines are available online at eatforhealth.gov.au.
Exercising for a healthier pregnancy
Regular exercise can help with many of the side effects of pregnancy – like insomnia, muscle pain, excessive weight gain, mood problems. It can also help with the labour and recovery after giving birth.
“If you've been exercising, then we recommend to continue exercising,” says Mackenzie, “but you really have got to listen to your body and stopping if it’s hurting. You need to speak to your midwife or your obstetrician, or your GP about what your routine is and how to keep it optimal for pregnancy.”
Exercises which are gentler on bodies and joints are recommended for pregnant women. “If someone is already swimming or walking, we recommend they keep going with those. But when you're pregnant, the hormones loosen the ligaments and you have a lot more flexibility in your joints, so it’s best to avoid deep squats,” says Mackenzie.
There’s one exercise that every midwife will recommend to pregnant women, according to Mackenzie. “You have to look after, and strengthen, your pelvic floor because it’s holding all your organs as well as the baby, placenta and fluid. It's got a lot more increased pressure and it really is important to avoid jumping or anything else that will impact your pelvic floor. You really need to maintain your kegel exercises. Talk to your midwife if you don’t know what these are — they’ll happily tell you.”
Supporting a pregnant woman
It’s important to observe and listen to a woman who is pregnant, as prenatal and postnatal depression are significant concerns. Mackenzie adds, “If someone wants to support a pregnant woman, and she seems to be having a hard time, then ask if they’re ok. Talk to them, don’t just ignore it. It's really a big thing in our society to recognize that a lot of women go through this, and a lot of women need support.”