Houston medical experts explain how you can have a healthy pregnancy

Let’s face it. Pregnancy does not come with an instruction book.

Most OB-GYNS have resources or books they recommend, said Dr. Cindy Celnik, chief medical officer at Woman’s Hospital of Texas.

“But there isn’t just one,” she added. “That wouldn’t be nice.”

Yet experts agree that staying healthy is essential, both to facilitate pregnancy and for the sake of the baby after birth.

And women can’t be too prepared when it comes to a healthy pregnancy, said Celnik, who suggests moms start preparing even before conception.

“We tell our patients that the goal is to be in the best possible state – before pregnancy,” she said. “Waiting until the pregnancy is over won’t work.”

Dr. Jennifer Staley, OBY-GYN at Houston Methodist, agrees that women should start early and plan ahead for a successful pregnancy.

“A healthy pregnancy begins before pregnancy even begins,” she said. “Pregnancy is tough. Some women go through it, but most of us don’t. The best thing you can do beforehand is to make sure you’re healthy.

Mental and emotional health are just as important, said McClain Sampson, a professor at the University of Houston’s Graduate College of Social Work. She brought the National Healthy Start program to campus and is a Principal Investigator.

“You also need to focus on moms’ health during and after pregnancy,” Sampson said.

Here are some of the top tips these three Houston experts have to offer for a healthy pregnancy:

Take your vitamins, especially folic acid.
Folic acid, a B vitamin, occurs naturally in leafy green vegetables, fruits, beans, peas and some fortified cereals, Celnik said. Everyone needs folic acid, but it’s essential for pregnant women because it can prevent birth defects, including spina bifida.

“Even though folate is present in some foods, it’s not enough,” Celnik said. “Folic acid supplements are very important.”

Organs and the spine form early in pregnancy and depend on folic acid, she said. “Right away, that’s the first thing that’s going to happen.”

Celnik recommends starting at least a month before getting pregnant, with 0.4 milligrams of folic acid daily.

Stanley also recommends DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid capsule found in fish oil.

“You are developing a new human inside your body,” she said. “This new human needs many things – and will take those things from your body.”

That means all the nutrients your baby needs must be available, Stanley said.

Pay attention to your plate.
It’s important for women to eat a balanced diet, said Celnik, who recommends five servings of fruits and vegetables a day.

Stanley added that often nutrients from food are better absorbed than from supplements. “Eat the colors of the rainbow,” she said.

Celnik suggests skipping raw seafood, undercooked meat, deli meats, and unpasteurized dairy products. She also said to limit caffeine to one cup a day, cut back on sodas, and avoid artificial sweeteners and processed foods in general.

She said that a number of patients ask how much alcohol is allowed during pregnancy. “There is no known amount of alcohol that is safe,” she said. “We therefore cannot make a recommendation for any.”

Stay hydrated. One of the first things Stanley tells his patients is to carry a large jug of water throughout the day. “Every time I see you, you better have it,” she said with a laugh. “You need eight to 12 cups a day. And that’s a lot.

Dehydration can cause a number of problems during pregnancy, including constipation and even uterine pain.

Stay active or start walking. There was a time when exercise was not recommended for pregnant women. Not anymore, Stanley said. “Nowadays we know a lot more.”

She recommends patients stick to their pre-pregnancy exercise routines. “You can continue, but you may need to make some changes,” she said.

And if patients weren’t exercising before pregnancy, Stanley suggests walking. “Women who exercise tend to have healthier pregnancies and fewer complications,” she said.

Follow your projections.
Don’t wait to check your weight, blood pressure and blood sugar levels, Celnik said. If something is wrong, act immediately. “Now is the time to fix it, before you get pregnant,” she said.

Physical exams and labs shouldn’t start while you’re pregnant, Celnik explained. “Because then you’re a little behind on the eight ball,” she said.

She also recommends preconception visits with your OB-GYN to discuss family history or previous health issues.

Be up to date with your vaccinations. Stanley suggests women get the flu shot as well as the Tdap vaccine, which protects against whooping cough. It is also important to be vaccinated against COVID. “All my vaccinated patients are doing well. They can recover at home,” she said. “For my unvaccinated patients, it’s a different story. If you want to be safe, you need to get vaccinated.

Celnik said if women haven’t had the vaccine before, it’s still safe to get the COVID-19 shot during pregnancy. “It’s 100% fine,” she said. “It’s OK for when you’re breastfeeding too.”

In fact, the antibodies from the vaccine can help your baby. “There are benefits for you and your baby,” Celnik said. “That’s probably the only way to protect your baby during COVID, because your baby can’t be vaccinated. You pass on immunity.

Stop smoking. Despite all the statistics, nearly 40 million adults in the United States smoke cigarettes.

Smoking during pregnancy can damage the baby’s tissues. Celnik said cigarettes can lead to babies being born too early, birth defects and restricted growth. She recommends stopping as soon as possible to protect the baby.

Consider environmental factors. There are a number of risks that can affect prenatal development, including exposure to chemicals, pollution, radiation, pesticides, and products that contain chlorine.

“You go into a state where you’re immunocompromised,” Celnik said. “You have to take even more care of yourself. You must be very protective of yourself.

Make mental health a priority. Mental health management is key, Stanley said. “Pregnancy is tough. Becoming a mom is tough,” she said. “You might have anxiety.”

Studies even suggest a link between anxiety and depression with preterm labor, she explained. Sleep, nutrition, and exercise can affect your mental health, and Stanley often recommends practicing meditation to his patients.

Take ownership of your health. Dr Sampson said pregnancy can be treated as an illness. “If you have a relatively normal pregnancy, you might not get a lot of information,” she said. “And if it’s high risk, it’s really reactive.”

She is a proponent of a paradigm shift, in which women are in control before, during and after pregnancy. “My biggest message to women is to educate you on what’s best for you and your family,” Sampson concluded.

Build a community. In her work with Healthy Start, Sampson often finds that moms crave connection. She recommends joining a support group at the hospital or finding one on social media.

Sampson also suggests having friends or family members who can serve as advocates during pregnancy. “It could be the doula, your husband or your wife, or your mother,” she said. “You are going to be physically handicapped at times. You are emotional. Who can be your witness and your lawyer?

If COVID precautions limit bringing your attorney to appointments, that person can still help you write questions, follow up, and communicate with your healthcare provider.

Create a support plan.
Most women make a plan to give birth, Sampson said. She encourages the formation of a similar plan of support during pregnancy and early motherhood. For example, there may be a postpartum group to join or a friend who can help navigate the return-to-work process.

“Emotional support is one of the most effective ways to prevent postpartum depression and anxiety,” Sampson said. “And isolation is one of the biggest risks.”

Lindsay Peyton is a freelance writer based in Houston.

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