Prenatal care is the care a woman gets before and during pregnancy. Prenatal care includes health care, education and counseling about how to handle and monitor the different stages of pregnancy. Your doctor or health care provider may discuss many issues with you such as proper nutrition, physical activity, what to expect during the birth process and basic skills for infant care.

Getting early and regular prenatal care is essential for your health and the health of your unborn baby. Your doctor will schedule you for several checkups over the course of your pregnancy. Be sure not to miss any — they are all important to your baby's well being.

Babies of mothers who do not receive or seek out prenatal care are three times more likely to have a low birth weight and five times more likely to die than those born to mothers who do get that care. Doctors can spot health problems early when they see expecting mothers regularly. Regular prenatal care visits allow doctors to jumpstart treatment for a problem early enough to be safe. Early treatment can cure many problems as well as work to prevent others.

If you are planning on conceiving a child, you should start taking care of yourself before you start trying to become pregnant. This is known as preconception health. It is important to consult your doctor before pregnancy in order to learn what you can do to prepare your body.

The main sign of pregnancy is missing one or more menstrual periods in a row. Other signs of pregnancy may include:

  • Nausea or vomiting (morning sickness)
  • Sore breasts or nipples
  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Food cravings or aversions
  • Mood swings
  • Frequent urination

If you are interested in having children in the near future, you should begin preparing your body now.

To prepare your body for future pregnancy, there are five important things you can do:

  • Take 400-800 micrograms of folic acid every day for at least three months before getting pregnant. This lowers the risk of some birth defects in the brain and spine. While some foods contain folic acid, they do not have enough for your daily need if you are trying to become pregnant. Taking a vitamin with folic acid is the best and easiest way to make sure you're getting enough.
  • Stop smoking tobacco and drinking alcohol.
  • If you have a medical condition, talk to your doctor about how to keep it under control. Tell your doctor if you have any other health conditions, including asthma, diabetes, depression, high blood pressure, obesity, thyroid disease or epilepsy. These conditions are often treated with medications that while safe for an adult woman, may not be safe for a developing fetus. Also discuss your vaccination status with your doctor.
  • Tell your doctor about all of the medications — over-the-counter or prescription — that you are using. That also includes any dietary and herbal supplements. Some medications are not safe to take during pregnancy. However, stopping some medicines abruptly could be harmful and cause further risk.
  • Avoid all contact with toxic substances at home and at work that could potentially be harmful. Clear these materials out from your home and office. Stay away from chemicals and cat or rodent feces.

As soon as you become actively interested in having a child, you should consider looking into proper prenatal care. While you may be committed to your regular physician, ask about health care professionals who specifically specialize in prenatal and pregnancy care.

The most effective way to determine pregnancy is through a pregnancy test. Home pregnancy tests are available over-the-counter and are considered highly accurate. Your doctor or health care provider can also do a pregnancy test. If you take a home pregnancy test and receive a positive result, schedule an appointment with your doctor to follow up. They will be able to confirm the diagnosis at this point.

How do you know if you're at risk for a high-risk pregnancy? There are many factors that can determine your probability for a high-risk pregnancy. These factors include the following:

  • being of young or old maternal age
  • being underweight or overweight
  • having had problems in previous pregnancies
  • pre-existing health conditions, such as high blood pressure, diabetes or HIV

Conditions such as gestational diabetes and preeclampsia are serious complications that can develop during pregnancy.

Preeclampsia causes high blood pressure during pregnancy and if ignored, can progress to eclampsia, which involves dangerously high blood pressure and convulsions.

Gestational diabetes is a form of diabetes that can lead to serious problems, including heart disease, blindness, kidney failure and nerve damage.

At the start of your pregnancy, ask your doctor to test you for these conditions and your risk of developing them. Doctors often recommend that overweight women lose weight before becoming pregnant in order to lower these risks.

It is difficult to diagnosis risk in pregnancy, especially when the woman is a first time mother. About 40 percent of the pregnant population at any given time has never before had a child. But because both gestational diabetes and preeclampsia can be dangerous or even fatal if left untreated, ask your doctor for a physical examination and blood testing, which should be able to detect these conditions.

Maintaining a regular schedule of prenatal checkups and screenings is the easiest and most effective way of diagnosing a problem with the pregnancy or any development, whether it be positive or negative.

There are many proactive steps you can take to maintain a healthy pregnancy for you and your baby. It takes commitment but can be done with the proper amount of caution, care and diligence.

Get early and regular prenatal care. Whether it is your first pregnancy or your third, health care for yourself and your developing baby is incredibly essential. Your doctor will check to make sure you and your baby are healthy at each visit. Therefore, if any unforeseen problems or complications arise, your doctor can take early action to help you both.

Most experts suggest you see your doctor about once each month for weeks 4-28, twice a month for weeks 28-36 and weekly from week 36 through the birth. If you are older than 35 years, or your pregnancy is high-risk, you'll probably see your doctor more often based on his or her recommendation.

Ask your doctor about taking a multivitamin or prenatal vitamin with 400-800 micrograms of folic acid every day. Folic acid is most important in the early stages of pregnancy, but it can help to take it throughout the entirety of your pregnancy.

Ask your doctor before stopping or starting any medication. Avoid x-rays. If you must have dental work or diagnostic tests, tell your dentist or doctor first that you are pregnant to ensure extra care and precaution is taken.

Talk to your doctor about getting a flu shot, as pregnant women are prone to getting very ill from the flu and may even need hospital care.

Eat a wide variety of healthy foods. Choose fruits, vegetables, whole grains, calcium-rich foods and foods low in saturated fats. Also drink plenty of water throughout the day in order to stay hydrated.

Make sure you're getting all the nutrients you need every day, including iron, which helps to prevent anemia (a condition linked to preterm birth and low birth weight).

Protect yourself and your baby from food-borne illnesses such as toxoplasmosis and listeria by washing all fruits and vegetables before eating. Don't eat undercooked or uncooked meat or fish, and always handle, clean, cook, eat and store foods properly and with care.

Don't eat fish with high amounts of mercury such as swordfish, king mackerel, shark and tilefish. Make sure to gain a healthy amount of weight, as it is necessary for you and your baby. Your doctor can guide you on how much weight to gain and what you should aim for during the pregnancy. Don't smoke, drink alcohol or use drugs. Unless your doctor tells you specifically not to, try to get at least 2 hours and 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity a week. Spread out these workouts throughout the week evenly.

Don't take very hot baths, use hot tubs or use saunas. Get plenty of sleep and talk to your doctor about ways to avoid and eliminate stress. Get informed and involved in your pregnancy — read books, watch videos, go to a childbirth class and talk with moms you know. Ask your doctor about childbirth education classes in your area. These classes may help you prepare for the birth of your child.

Stay away from any type of dangerous chemicals, including insecticides, solvents (like cleaners and paint thinners), lead, mercury and paint (and paint fumes).

Not all chemically based products have pregnancy warnings clearly displayed. Talk to your doctor if you are worried that chemicals used at home or in the workplace may be dangerous.

If you have a cat, ask your doctor about the risks of toxoplasmosis. This infection can be caused by a parasite found in cat feces. If not treated, it may cause birth defects. Reduce risks by avoiding cat litter and wearing gloves while gardening. Avoid all contact with rodents, and take steps like washing your hands often to avoid illness. Stay away from those who smoke.

Prenatal visits are all about maintaining the health of you and your baby. During your first prenatal visit, you can expect to be asked about your health history — including diseases, operations and prior pregnancies — and about your family's health history. You can also expect to participate in a complete physical examination that includes a pelvic exam and Pap test. Your doctor may ask for blood and urine samples in order to use in lab work. Your blood pressure, height and weight will be taken, and your due date will be calculated. 

A positive way to start off your prenatal care is to ask questions, get to know your doctor and make your hopes and fears known. Find out the best possible ways for you to stay healthy. Later prenatal visits will be shorter — your doctor will check on your health and make sure the baby is growing as expected.

Most prenatal visits will include:

  • checking your blood pressure
  • measuring your weight gain
  • measuring your abdomen to check the baby's growth
  • checking the baby's heart rate

Getting help is an important aspect of pregnancy. You may feel overwhelmed, underprepared or even like you have all the answers. You must remember that every pregnancy is different and no matter how much you prepare, you cannot anticipate every bump and turn you'll experience during the ride.

Talk to your doctor as well as your mother, close family and friends who have been through the pregnancy experience and may be able to offer guidance and helpful tips about every aspect of pregnancy. Realize you cannot be fully prepared but embrace the hiccups that you encounter.

Make sure to follow your doctor's advice. Know that as each pregnancy is different. Only you and your doctor know your specific condition and medical background. Your instructions for care may differ drastically from another's.

I have heard of other health care professionals aiding in childbirth. What are my options?

  • There are several types of health care professionals who help pregnant women in various ways, including in the delivery of their baby. These professionals may be obstetricians, family physicians, midwives and nurse-midwives. Some of these individuals will work from or in your home if you wish to have a home birth. Consult your doctor on your options and speak to others who have used alternatives. Research your options as well, and make sure you feel safe and comfortable with your decisions.

What are some conditions that may cause a high-risk pregnancy?

  • Preeclampsia is a syndrome that includes high blood pressure, urinary protein and changes in blood levels of liver enzymes during pregnancy. It can affect the mother's kidneys, liver and brain. If left untreated, the condition could be fatal for both the mother and her baby. Eclampsia is a more severe form of the condition that causes seizures and coma in the mother.
  • Gestational diabetes is a form of diabetes that only pregnant women can develop. If a woman gets diabetes while she is pregnant and has never had the condition before, it is gestational diabetes. Many  women with gestational diabetes have healthy pregnancies and healthy babies because they follow a treatment plan from their health care professional.
  • HIV/AIDS damages and kills cells of the body's immune system, progressively destroying the body's own ability to fight off infection. Women can give HIV to their babies while pregnant, while giving birth or through breastfeeding.
  • Preterm labor is labor that begins before 37 weeks of pregnancy. The baby has not yet fully developed and grown at this time, so it may be unable to survive outside of the womb. Doctors will often take steps to try to stop labor if it occurs before this time. Certain infections, a shortened cervix and previous preterm birth may raise a woman's risk of experiencing preterm labor.

Pregnancy and regular prenatal care require a firm commitment; you and your baby's health depend on this frequent care. During pregnancy, it is important to put your baby's health at the forefront of your mind. You may need to change your lifestyle, eating habits, exercise regimen and body image in order to maintain the wellbeing of your unborn child.

Although you will see a doctor regularly for prenatal care, it is your responsibility to take the necessary precautionary steps to keep yourself and your baby safe. Be open and willing to change your day-to-day lifestyle. Make sure your diet includes generous amounts of fruits and vegetables as well as whole grains, calcium-rich foods and foods low in saturated fat. Avoid undercooked meat and fish, and stay away from seafood containing high amounts of mercury such as swordfish, king mackerel, shark and tilefish.

Review Date: 
August 9, 2012