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Babies on the brain? Why preconception care matters and how to do it

Babies on the brain? Why preconception care matters and how to do it
Written by Sophia Power, BA Media, BHSc Nutritional Medicine

Thinking of starting a family or welcoming in a new sibling for your little one? There’s a few things you need to know when it comes to preconception care - and no, it’s not just about taking a prenatal vitamin. 

All parents want to do what’s best for their children’s health and wellbeing, but what about doing what’s best for children you don’t have…yet? Planning for a healthy baby and preparing the body for pregnancy is preconception care. Just like you’d devote time and energy to training your body for a marathon, it’s important to take the time to set yourself up for a healthy pregnancy. 

Read on to find out exactly what preconception care is, why both parents matter, and how to get started.

What is preconception care? 

Preconception care is about preparing the body for the incredible task of creating and sustaining life. The period before pregnancy is a time to check in on the physical, nutritional and emotional wellbeing of both parents-to-be. This is also a time to consider whether your current environment is a healthy place to raise a child (and therefore grow a baby).

As you create your preconception care plan, it’s also helpful to have a look around at what support networks are in place to ensure you have everything you’ll need.

Here are some resources for new parents: 

Pregnancy, birth & baby 

Center of Perinatal Excellence (COPE)

Parentline

Tresillian

Do men need to do preconception care too?

As we know, it takes two to tango when it comes to creating life - but it may still surprise you to learn that men can and should be active participants in the preconception journey. Preparing to become a dad is the perfect time for men to also look more closely at diet, lifestyle and emotional support and ask themselves what could use a bit more attention.

Sperm are highly sensitive to their environment. Common nutrients such as zinc, selenium and folate are needed to produce healthy sperm. If the environment and diet have been less than ideal for some time, i.e. you work with toxic materials or have a longstanding coffee and cigarette habit or drink alcohol, then a preconception care plan is essential to address these factors. 

The good news for men is that spermatogenesis - the creation of sperm - takes approximately 64 days. This means in just over two months, men can positively influence the health of their sperm, improving their genetic legacy.1

What are the recommendations for preconception care? 

Here are our top 6 recommendations for preconception care:

  1. Prenatal vitamins for both partners

There are a plethora of prenatal supplements on the market to choose from - don’t just go for the one your friend recommended. Seek out tailored advice from your healthcare professional about which prenatal vitamin is the right type for you.

  1. Eat the rainbow

This isn’t permission to eat Skittles, but rather the colours found naturally in fruit and vegetables. Vibrant colours like purples, reds and oranges in the diet ensure a variety of different types of antioxidants.

Antioxidants are also important for preventing oxidative stress in pregnancy. Oxidative stress is a process that can damage cells, tissues, even organs while also increasing certain risk factors in pregnancy.

  1. Commit to yourself with self-care

Women struggling with their fertility regularly report higher than normal stress levels.2 This is because stress can wreak havoc on your hormones. 

    Healthy hormones are a key part of the fertility and reproductive health picture - so keeping stress in check ensures that hormones stay balanced. 

    1. Say goodbye to unhealthy vices

    The research on the negative impacts of smoking, excessive alcohol and drug use on the impacts of fertility health is undeniable. Giving up unhealthy vices in the preconception period, or beginning to cut back, is a critical part of preconception care.

    Men, this means you too - new research has shown that fathers who regularly drink alcohol prior to conception also enhance the risk of birth defects in their offspring.3

    1. Adopt a whole food diet

    When you adopt a whole food diet, you’re eating mostly fresh produce such as fruit, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, seafood and meat. These foods contain a wide range of nutrients that are vital for fertility health such as B vitamins, omega-3 fats, protein, iron, vitamin C, zinc, magnesium, choline and plenty more.

    Once you do conceive, you can continue eating this way during your pregnancy to support healthy foetal development.

    1. Assess your environment

    Are you in the middle of a DIY renovation? Do you use skincare products with iffy ingredients? Are you regularly using plastic drink bottles and containers? Why does any of this even matter?

    We absorb chemicals from our environment every day - through breathing, consumption, as well as through our skin. Many of these chemicals are what are known as endocrine-disruptors - meaning they mimic our own hormones, leading the body to believe we have too much of certain hormones. This can cause a whole host of health issues for humans, including a buildup of toxins in the body and lowered fertility. 

      The solution? Avoid environmental toxins like lead paint, BPA found in plastic and chemicals such as phthalates, formaldehyde and parabens found in certain skincare products. 

      When to start a preconception care plan

      If you’re someone who loves to plan ahead, you’ll want to get started on your preconception care plan 6 months to a year out. The earlier you start, the better. However - and this is a big however - that doesn’t mean that if you start a month out and fall pregnant, or start after you’ve conceived that it is meaningless. Everything you do, every choice you make is still impacting the health of you and your (future) baby.  

      When you choose to start preconception care is going to be completely individual - but the advice remains the same. 

      What if you’re doing things a little differently? 

      Everyone’s journey is going to look different, but preconception care should still be top of mind - whether you’re freezing eggs, embryos, sperm, or exploring in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) or intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI). The ideal outcome is a healthy, happy baby no matter how they are conceived. 

      With some of the above treatments, things can get a little more complex when it comes to taking supplements and making diet or lifestyle changes. Fertility specialists are used to working with a ‘team’ - this could be your GP, other specialists, dietician, nutritionist or naturopath. Always let your team of experts know if you’re making any changes. The great news is that you have a built-in support network! 

      Preconception care is an exciting time to plan and make positive changes in your life. With a little bit of forward-thinking and reassessing, you can be well on your way to creating long-lasting healthy habits for you and your family.

      References: 

      1. Marcho, C. Oluwayiose, O. & Pilsner, J.R. (2020). The preconception environment and sperm epigenetics. Andrology, 8(4):924-942. 
      2. Rooney, K.L. & Domar, A.D. (2018). The relationship between stress and fertility. Dialogues Clin Neurosci, 20(1):41-47. 
      3. Healthline. Written April 2021, accessed March 2022 from https://www.healthline.com/health-news/how-the-drinking-habits-of-fathers-may-contribute-to-birth-defects-in-newborns#Birth-defects-more-commonly-reported-by-fathers-who-drink-alcohol

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