Our nation is slowly beginning to understand that prevention is a more effective, cost-saving endeavor. We suffer through safety precautions at the airport, knowing that while sometimes inconvenient, the careful monitoring of passengers helps to prevent calamities like 9/11. We have started (better late than never ...) advocating for quality pre-kindergarten instruction that provides children with the tools to succeed in school, knowing that time and money invested in early education lowers drop-out rates, unintended teenage pregnancies and even chronic health problems.
We are used to taking simple health precautions that help us avoid pain and suffering later in life -- put on sunblock to avoid getting burnt; brush and floss your teeth to avoid cavities; exercise regularly to avoid heart disease; get immunized to avoid catching or spreading life-threatening illnesses ... the list goes on.
But what about PRE-prevention? When it comes to Maternal and Child Health, studies are beginning to show that even prenatal care is not enough to ensure a healthy birth and child. You may take your prenatal vitamins and attend your prenatal checkups, but if you haven’t designated some attention to pre-conception wellness, it is possible you are missing out on important preventive opportunities.
According to a report written by Michael C. Lu and published in the American Family Physician journal, “by the time pregnant women have their first prenatal visit, it may be too late to prevent some placental development problems or birth defects.” Neural tube defects arising from low folic acid intake can occur before the fetus is 4 weeks old, and poor development of the placenta (which can lead to preeclampsia, a life-threatening illness for pregnant women) before you even know you are pregnant!
This doesn’t mean health is a lost cause. It simply means that reproductive health is not an isolated point on the timeline of your life. The choices you make as a child, as a young adult, throughout middle age, and as a post-menopausal woman are all connected! You deserve the opportunity to take care of yourself at every age and stage of being. (And by taking the time to educate yourself on health topics, you are already reaping countless benefits!)
Lu explains that there have been numerous recommendations and care models developed by different agencies to promote preconception health. (To read more about some of the different suggestions and resources, visit: http://www.aafp.org/afp/2007/0801/p397.html)
Below is a list of some of the most common tips from around the medical world about preventative steps you can take RIGHT NOW to promote your reproductive health -- whether you are planning to become pregnant or not!
1. Use Family Planning: Decide whether/when you are interested in having children and what method(s) of birth control and protection you will use before trying to conceive. Discuss your thoughts with your partner and be aware of your options, making a reproductive life plan based off your own goals, values and resources. Consider how a child might affect your life and how you can maintain the healthiest emotional, physical environment for your family.
2. Healthy Weight and Nutrition: Take folic acid, eat a balanced diet that is high in vitamins and nutrients, focuses on produce, not processed foods, and limits intake of high-fat, high-sodium junk foods. Incorporate moderate exercise into your daily schedule. Speak with a care provider about what your body’s ideal weight level might be (it will be different for each individual!) and about strategies for attaining and maintaining that level.
3. Manage preexisting health concerns: Speak with your provider about the best ways to treat and control any chronic conditions (diabetes, high blood pressure/heart conditions, etc). Work together to find the best care plan for your needs and lifestyle and that will allow you to feel your healthiest.
4. Get up to date on your immunizations and health screenings: Find out whether you have all the shots you need (HPV? T-DAP? Hepatitis?) and attend regular visits with a medical professional. Have a Pap smear once a year (or once every six months if you have been determined high risk) to check for abnormal cervical cells. Get screened for any sexually transmitted infections and follow through with any necessary treatments.
5. Limit unhealthy exposures: If you smoke cigarettes, stop. If you drink excessively, stop. If you use illegal drugs and other substances, stop. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist about any medications that you take on a regular basis (prescription, over-the-counter and natural supplements) and how they may affect your ability to get pregnant/your reproductive and sexual health. Also discuss whether your occupation/usual environment puts you at risk of exposure that could be harmful -- teratogenic chemicals or substances, dangerous activities, etc.
6. Know what health insurance coverage you are eligible for. Do research to find the best plan for you and your family, or speak to a social worker/health administrator about support programs that you might qualify for. Having a baby is medically expensive, and health insurance will help you to obtain the best care throughout preconception, prenatal and postnatal periods.
7. Stress Resilience: Undue stress can have physiological and psychological impacts on the health of a mother, her partner and any future children. Practice problem-solving, stress management and conflict-resolution skills. Speak with a provider about obtaining emotional wellness, ongoing stressors like unhealthy relationships, and about what can be done to obtain balance in your life.
There are many more suggestions for women to consider when thinking about the course of their lives and the reproductive choices they are allowed. The bottom line is that NOW is the time to take preventive health precautions, increase your health literacy and let yourself feel great at every age and stage of life.
American Pregnancy Association (March 2011.) “Pre-Conception Health for Women.” http://www.americanpregnancy.org/gettingpregnant/womenpreconception.htm
Brundage, Stephanie C., MD, MPH. (June 2002) “Preconception Health Care” Greenville Hospital System, American Family Physician. 15;65(12):2507-2515. http://www.aafp.org/afp/2002/0615/p2507.html
Lu, Michael C. MD, MPH. (August 2007). “Recommendations for Preconception Care” University of California, Los Angeles. American Family Physician. 1;76(3):397-400. http://www.aafp.org/afp/2007/0801/p397.html
Womenshealth.gov (September 2010) “Pregnancy: Preconception Health.” Health and Human Services. http://www.womenshealth.gov/pregnancy/before-you-get-pregnant/preconception-health.cfm
Reviewed on August 23, 2011
by Maryann Gromisch
Edited by Jody Smith