It takes two to conceive: The importance of preconception health

Whether you’re going down the traditional conception path or via an assisted conception treatment, preconception health is an integral part of having a baby.

The creation of a healthy baby requires both a healthy egg and a healthy sperm. However, male fertility is often overlooked when it comes to reproduction, yet it plays a vital role as men contribute 50% of a baby’s DNA.

In this article, we discuss why taking the time to focus on the physical health, emotional health, and lifestyle choices for both partners involved can help create the best possible conditions for a healthy pregnancy, reduce the risk of complications, and ensure the best possible outcomes for the unborn baby.

Finally, we hear from Dr Danielle Quittner, our resident obstetrician and gynaecologist, on some of the things worth asking ourselves in the pregnancy planning phase.

It takes two to conceive: The importance of preconception health for women

For women, preconception health starts with seeing a doctor for a checkup. This includes a medical history review, a physical exam, and a blood test to check hormone levels and other factors. Women should also discuss any medications they take and whether they’re safe to take during pregnancy.

Depending on the woman’s age and health history, other tests such as a Pap smear or ultrasound may also be recommended.

Women should also focus on lifestyle changes to ensure they’re in optimal health. They must limit their intake of alcohol, caffeine, and tobacco, as these can all have a negative impact on fertility and the health of the baby.

Exercise is important, as it can help with weight control, reduce stress and improve overall health. Get plenty of sleep, and make sure to stay hydrated.

Eating a healthy diet is key to a healthy pregnancy. Include plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, as well as lean proteins. Avoid foods that are high in sugar, fat, and salt.

Preconception vitamin supplementation, especially activated folic acid and B vitamins, is essential to support preconception and pregnancy health. Folate, also known as vitamin B9, is an essential nutrient that supports various bodily functions, especially during pregnancy.

Incorporating activated folate as part of preconception care can significantly support a woman’s overall reproductive health and promote the healthy development of her baby. Unlike folic acid, the synthetic form of folate often found in supplements and fortified foods, activated folate, also known as methylfolate or 5-MTHF, does not require conversion by the body and is readily absorbed and utilised.

It plays a vital role in DNA synthesis, cell division, and proper neural tube development in early pregnancy. By taking activated folate before conception, women can reduce the risk of neural tube defects in their babies, and help prevent complications such as preeclampsia, premature birth, and low birth weight.

Furthermore, some individuals have a genetic variation called MTHFR gene mutation, which impairs the body’s ability to convert synthetic folic acid into its active form. For these women, activated folate is especially important as it bypasses this conversion process and ensures optimal folate levels.

It takes two to conceive: The importance of preconception health for men

In more than a third of infertility cases, the problem lies with the male partner. By prioritising preconception health, particularly when it comes to sperm quality, men can take proactive measures to enhance their fertility potential.

Preconception health measures, such as maintaining a balanced diet, regular exercise, and avoiding harmful substances like tobacco and excessive alcohol, can significantly improve sperm quality and increase the chances of fertilisation.

Poor sperm quality can increase the likelihood of genetic mutations or chromosomal abnormalities, leading to conditions such as Down syndrome or other birth defects. Taking steps to improve sperm quality can lower the risk of these conditions.

High-quality sperm contributes to a healthy pregnancy. It affects the development of the embryo and can influence the overall health of the mother and baby.

It can also have lifelong health implications for the child. Research suggests that the father’s health at the time of conception can influence the risk of certain health conditions in offspring, including obesity, cardiovascular disease, and even mental health disorders.

Environmental exposures, such as pollutants, pesticides, and toxins, can negatively impact sperm quality. It is essential for men to be aware of their surroundings and take necessary precautions to minimise exposure to harmful substances.

By adopting a healthy lifestyle, managing existing health conditions, and seeking regular medical check-ups, men can optimise their overall health and reduce potential risks for themselves, their partners, and future children.

Since sperm is half of the equation in creating a healthy baby, it’s important for the man to take preconception supplements designed specifically to support sperm motility, sperm production, and testosterone levels. A regular multivitamin will not do these things.

Emotional health when preparing for pregnancy

In addition to physical health, it’s also important to consider emotional health when preparing for pregnancy. This means making sure both partners are emotionally and mentally prepared for the changes that pregnancy and parenting will bring.

Depending on your unique circumstances, here are five tips to help you emotionally prepare:

  1. Educate yourself: Take the time to learn about the physical and emotional changes that accompany pregnancy. Read books, talk to your doctor, or find online resources to help you better understand the process.
  2. Connect with other parents: Reach out to friends and family who have been through pregnancy to gain insight into what to expect emotionally. You can also find support groups in your community or online.
  3. Make time for yourself and as a couple (if applicable): Take time to relax and reflect on your feelings. This could mean spending time alone, listening to music, reading, or going for a walk.
  4. Talk it out: Talk to your partner, friends, and family about how you’re feeling. Venting your emotions can help you process them and feel more in control.
  5. Find emotional outlets: Consider starting a journal, taking up a new hobby, or practising relaxation techniques like meditation and deep breathing to help manage your stress and emotions.

Some things worth asking yourself in the pregnancy planning phase

Obstetrician and gynaecologist, Dr Danielle Quittner, suggests asking yourself the following questions:

  • Do I have any medical issues or chronic conditions that might be relevant? The health of a pregnancy and baby can be significantly impacted by a woman’s health when she enters pregnancy. The key is to optimise the management of any medical conditions prior to falling pregnant. Some examples are high blood pressure, epilepsy, diabetes and thyroid conditions. Certain medications may need to be changed, started or ceased prior to pregnancy. So in addition to your GP, it’s often worth checking in with specialists who have been involved in your care in the past.
  • Have I considered reproductive carrier screening? Also known as genetic carrier screening, this testing looks to see if you or your partner carry a genetic variant that could cause serious genetic conditions in your child. We can now screen for common conditions and also rarer conditions. While this screening can be done in pregnancy, having the results prior to pregnancy gives us really important information that can guide planning to increase the chance of a healthy child.
  • Have I considered the type of pregnancy and birth care I am hoping for and who I would like to be looking after me? Would I like to be managed in the public or private hospital system? It’s worth looking into the differences in these models of care. If you want to have the choice for private care in a private hospital you will need to make sure your private health insurance includes obstetric care. Most policies require a waiting time of 12 months before this cover is activated, so this may influence when you start trying to conceive.

‘Many obstetricians offer appointments for pre-conception counselling. This is a great opportunity to meet them, discuss all of these things and make a plan to achieve a healthy future pregnancy. If you are planning private obstetric care, this can also be a lovely opportunity to get a sense of whether this doctor might be the right person for you. Ideally you should feel really comfortable with your care provider as you will be on this wonderful journey together!,’ advises Dr Quittner.

‘And something that I feel is really worthwhile is giving some thought to surrounding ourselves with appropriate family and friend support, as much as is practicable. Pregnancy and having a baby comes with huge physical and emotional changes and it really does take a village! For some couples, this may mean moving closer to relatives in the lead up to starting their own family’.

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