Before you get started
If you're planning to have a baby, ideally you should start thinking about your health and lifestyle as soon as you want to start trying. We recommend that you consult your doctor before you start trying.
With some methods of contraception, such as the male and female condom, the cap, diaphragm and natural family planning, as soon as you stop using the contraception you'll be fertile immediately. With other methods, such as the combined contraceptive pill and contraceptive injections, it can take some time for your menstrual cycles to return to normal after stopping the contraception. Although there is no reason you can't start trying immediately, some women like to wait a few months before trying for a baby to re-establish their natural cycles and prepare their body fully.
Taking a folic acid supplement helps prevent neural tube defects in your baby. For example, in the UK, the Government's Chief Medical Officer recommends that women who are planning to get pregnant, or women who are pregnant, take a folic acid supplement containing 400 micrograms of folic acid every day, ideally starting 3 months before your start trying to conceive, and throughout the 1st trimester of your pregnancy. If you eat a healthy diet, you will already get some folic acid from foods such as fortified breakfast cereals, beans, leafy green vegetables and orange juice, but it is important to still take the supplements because it is very difficult to get the required folic acid amount through diet alone.
If you're eating well before you get pregnant, you'll have all the right nutrients to support your baby from the day of conception onwards. Eat regular, balanced meals, lots of fresh fruit and vegetables and cut down on processed and 'fast' food. Make sure your diet includes:
Carbohydrates - wholemeal (brown) bread, pasta, rice and cereals are better than white bread, cakes and biscuits
Fruit and vegetables - try to eat five portions a day, bearing in mind that the more colourful the fruit or vegetable, the more nutritious it is.
Protein - you can get the protein you need from meat, fish, eggs, pulses and beans.
Milk and milk products - these contain lots of calcium, which is important for bone development
Fat - try to get your fat intake from vegetable sources like olive oil, or oily fish like salmon, herring or mackerel
Fitness and a healthy body weight
Pregnancy puts a lot of strain on your body so keeping fit before pregnancy will help you when the time comes. If you're fit before you get pregnant, it will be easier for you to keep active when you are pregnant. Exercise can help to improve your mood and energy levels, also reducing stress, which is a good thing when it comes to conceiving.
Being under- or overweight can hinder your chances of getting pregnant, so the best thing is to try and achieve as ideal a weight as possible before trying to get pregnant – your doctor will be able to give you information about a healthy weight for you.
Smoking, recreational drugs, alcohol
It's best to avoid smoking, recreational drugs and alcohol while you are trying to get pregnant and throughout your pregnancy.
If you smoke, then giving up will improve your chances of having a healthy pregnancy and a healthy baby. You can avoid second-hand smoke by encouraging your partner to give up too.
Alcohol is also not good for your growing baby – or for your chances of conceiving, so cutting right down on your intake or stopping completely will help. Those healthy glasses of red wine are not healthy for a developing baby.
Also, if you are taking any recreational drugs, then you should stop whilst you try for a baby and are pregnant, as they won't be good for your chances of conception or for the health of the baby.
If your partner smokes, drinks or takes drugs then it is also important that he cuts down on these substances (and ideally, stops them altogether) while you are trying to get pregnant. Apart from the secondary effects on you, cigarettes, recreational drugs and alcohol can all have an adverse affect on the quality of sperm.
Rubella, or German measles, can seriously affect unborn babies. If you haven't been inoculated against it, visit your doctor before you try to conceive and then avoid becoming pregnant for a month after the jab.
Things to be careful about
Raw eggs and raw or undercooked meat or shellfish
These may contain salmonella or other organisms which can cause food poisoning
Unpasteurised dairy products, liver or liver pâté and leftovers
These foods can contain Listeria, which can lead to miscarriage or stillbirth.
These contain high levels of vitamin A, which may be harmful for a developing baby so should be avoided.
Vitamin supplements NOT labelled "For Use in Pregnancy"
Vitamins and other supplements should only be used if it says on the container they are safe to use in pregnancy. This is because some vitamins, if taken at high levels, are extremely dangerous for the developing baby. It is important to take folic acid as mentioned earlier, so either buy this as a single supplement or buy a supplement designed specifically to be used in pregnancy.
Be careful with medicationDiscuss any medication you're taking with your doctor, let the pharmacist know you're pregnant if you need any over-the-counter medicine. Even simple remedies like decongestant nasal sprays can contain ingredients that should not be used when pregnant.
Be aware of toxoplasmosis
Unwashed vegetables, undercooked meat and cat faeces carry the risk of toxoplasmosis – which can cause miscarriages, stillbirth or damage to your baby. So always wash fruit and vegetables, only eat thoroughly cooked meat and wear gloves when you're gardening or emptying cat litter trays.
What your partner can do to help - how to encourage sperm production and longevity
Stay fit and healthy
He should try to be as active as possible, reduce alcohol and stop smoking and eat a healthy diet.
Use sperm-friendly lubricant
Make sure any lubricant you use isn't 'spermicidal' or toxic to sperm. You can buy 'sperm-friendly' lubricants that are specially formulated.
Keep testes cool
Your partner should wear loose underwear and avoid hot baths. Consistent or pro-longed 'heating' of the testes can reduce sperm quality.
A full and active sex life
Studies show that sperm with better quality DNA is produced if he ejaculates every couple of days.
- [i] NICE Clinical Guideline 62 (2008)