So you've decided you want to have a baby? How can you ensure you are in the best possible condition to conceive a healthy child?
The first step is to make sure your lifestyle is as healthy as possible. This may mean making some changes. You do not have to launch yourself into a strict keep-fit and health food regime, it may simply be a case of making a few easy adjustments to give your baby the best possible start in life.
Ideally you should start preparing yourself three to six months before conception. But some lifestyle changes will make a difference after only a few weeks.
The first thing to do is have a check up with your GP. Both of you. If you have a long-term medical condition your GP should already be aware of your medical needs and can advise you on the best way to proceed (for example checking if your medication is suitable before or during pregnancy). Any conditions like high or low blood pressure, epilepsy, diabetes or thyroid disease should be stabilised before you start trying for a baby.
Do not stop taking your prescribed medications unless you are told to by your GP.
You may want to have a pre-conception blood test to check if you immune to rubella (German measles).
Smoking is known to affect male and female fertility. Women smokers have lower oestrogen levels than non-smokers which can result in irregular ovulation. Toxins and nicotine in cigarettes can reduce the chance of successful fertilisation. Men smokers often have a lower sperm count with poorer quality sperm.
Reduce your drinking
For men, drinking alcohol can result in a lower sperm count with higher numbers abnormal sperm produced. Men planning to start a family should stop drinking on a regular basis (or binge drinking) for at least three months before conception to allow healthy sperm to develop. Alcohol has not been proven to affect ovulation in women, but as drinking in pregnancy can cause miscarriage and restrict foetal development it is sensible to start cutting back during the pre-conception phase.
Stop taking drugs
Any chemicals, including legal or illegal drugs, are potentially hazardous to fertility. You should stop taking any illegal drugs and check the safety of over-the-counter medications, natural remedies and supplements with your GP.
Get in shape
Being too fat or too thin can affect your fertility. You should aim to be within 15 pounds of the ideal range for your height. If you are too thin you risk having a small baby, if you are too fat you are more likely to develop diabetes or high blood pressure during pregnancy.
Cut junk food or heavily processed food from your diet and eat more healthily. Doing this for four months before you conceive will stand you in good stead for pregnancy and will level out any nutritional deficiencies in your diet.
Eat lots of fruit and veg as well as protein-rich food (chicken, fish and pulses) and whole grain, brown options rather than white, processed bread, rice or pasta. Drink at least eight glasses of water a day and reduce your coffee and tea intake.
Speak to your GP about taking supplements. They may recommend that as well as the customary folic acid you could take a multivitamin and mineral supplement designed especially for pre-conception.
Getting fit by doing some form of regular exercise pre-conception will help a woman's body cope with the demands of pregnancy. If you are new to exercise, walking or swimming, for 20 minutes three times a week is the minimum to aim for.
Too much stress is known to disrupt sex hormone levels and interfere with the normal menstrual cycle. Men who are stressed are more likely to have sperm of a poorer quality. They may even suffer from premature ejaculation or struggle to maintain an erection, which will impede conception.
Adjust your pre-pregnancy birth control
Until you are actually ready to conceive use a contraceptive method that will not affect your fertility. So do not use the contraceptive pill or injections, use barrier methods such as the condom or diaphragm and spermicides which are instantly reversible.