The way to a healthy baby begins with a healthy mom — and the journey starts long before a positive pregnancy test. Taking care of yourself before you conceive can help you avoid complications like preeclampsia (high blood pressure), gestational diabetes and preterm delivery and reduce your chances for having a baby with birth defects. The early stage of pregnancy, the first two to eight weeks after conception, is a critical time for fetal development — when your baby's facial features, brain, spinal column, heart and kidneys begin to form. But because you may not realize you're pregnant until three weeks or more after conception, your health status before pregnancy is key.

If you're thinking about having a baby, take these five steps to help ensure good health for both you and your future little one:

1. See your doctor for a preconception visit. This checkup includes a complete physical exam and possibly blood tests to look for infections and your immunity to certain diseases like rubella and chicken pox. Your doctor will update your vaccinations and discuss any current or past medical issues, your medications, family history, body weight, fitness level and lifestyle. It is especially important to have other health problems, such as diabetes and high blood pressure, well controlled before becoming pregnant. Also schedule a trip to your dentist now to have any needed X-rays or repair work done.

2. Improve your diet. Eat a well-balanced diet that includes a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products and protein-rich foods like lean meats and fish. Starting your pregnancy at a healthy weight can reduce your risk for complications like preeclampsia, gestational diabetes or a difficult delivery. Limit excess sugar, artificial sweeteners and junk food. Cut back on caffeine by limiting or avoiding coffee, tea, sodas, chocolate and medications.

3. Take folic acid. Studies show that women who don't get enough folic acid, a B vitamin, are more likely to have babies with neural tube defects such as spina bifida or anencephaly. Because the neural tube, which becomes your baby's spinal cord and brain, forms within the first three weeks of pregnancy, it's critical you get enough folic acid before you conceive. Take a daily supplement or a multivitamin that has at least 400 micrograms of folic acid.

4. Hit the gym, jogging trail, bike path or tennis courts. When pregnant, women should get at least 30 minutes of exercise on most, if not all, days of the week. Getting into the workout groove before you conceive will help you improve your fitness, maintain a healthy weight, reduce stress and gain strength and balance. Continuing to exercise during your pregnancy can reduce your chances for developing preeclampsia and gestational diabetes and ease constipation, varicose veins, backaches and fatigue.

5. Quit bad habits. Smoking, drinking alcohol or misusing drugs can cause miscarriage, premature birth, infant death, birth defects and growth and learning problems. Ask your doctor about programs to help you quit.

If you're thinking about having a baby, make the effort now to seek preconception care and improve your lifestyle to give your child his or her best start.

Dr. Kady Kiichler is an OB/GYN with Columbus Women’s Healthcare.

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