When a woman finds out she is pregnant, it is not unusual for her to develop a renewed motivation to want to look after her body for her baby. This often involves considering a few lifestyle changes (if she has not already started these in preparation for the pregnancy).
Making positive choices to give up some much loved vices will assist your body to nurture your new baby, as well as minimise the chances of them developing birth defects and/or being unwell after the birth. In many cases giving up a habit (such as smoking) will reduce your chances of experiencing pregnancy and labour complications.
While reading about these lifestyle changes, bear in mind that we do not live in a perfect world, and up to 50% of pregnancies are unplanned. Therefore, remind yourself that there are many factors that can influence a baby’s development and the normal course of a pregnancy. The recommendations for most lifestyle changes are based on the fact that they are usually aspects of our lives that we have some control over, and can make conscious decisions to avoid. In reality, even with all the research at our fingertips, we still do not know everything about the causes miscarriage and health disorders for unborn babies. (For example, up to 60% of abnormal conditions in babies are caused by unknown factors.)
Many women can feel guilty if they find out they are pregnant, and know they have used (or abused) certain substances, especially during the early weeks before their pregnancy was confirmed. Keeping the various lifestyle recommendations in perspective is important. Obtaining accurate information and advice is imperative, particularly if your caregiver is suggesting you terminate your pregnancy because you have taken a medication or drug during early pregnancy.
The following are some considerations when thinking about how you might alter your lifestyle during pregnancy.
Keeping lifestyle changes in perspective
During pregnancy most women try to make conscious efforts to do everything they can to help them have a healthy baby. However, while well-meaning family, friends, caregivers, acquaintances and the media are constantly telling women “You must do this” and “you cant do that” it may seem like you need to give up “everything” in order to be the ‘perfect mother’ and have the ‘perfect baby’. Pregnant women are very emotionally vulnerable and can feel like they are tiptoeing through a mine-field of potential dangers, needing to consider every step they take, for fear of placing a foot in the wrong place.
Modern society reinforces these attitudes with ideas like:
- If your diet isn’t ‘perfect’ and you don’t obtain all your vitamins you will have problems in your pregnancy.
- If you have a glass of wine or a coffee, or take an occasional paracetamol for a headache, then you are doing your baby harm.
- If you change your cat’s litter without wearing gloves you might have toxoplasmosis.
- If you eat a slice of camembert cheese with some pate you might have listeria.
- If you didn’t take folic acid your baby will have a neural tube defect
And the list goes on. These strict ‘thou shalt’ or ‘shalt not’ guidelines often disregard the complexity of our modern lives and the realities that many pregnant women face. Modern attitudes have evolved to the point that if a pregnant woman strays from her ‘virtuous path’, then she only has herself to blame if her baby is not born ‘perfect’. It is even taken as far as labelling women as ‘bad mothers’ for doing so.
This mind-set has lead to many women experiencing very stressful pregnancies, as they suffer with guilt and anxiety about things they may have taken or done during their pregnancy (perhaps even before it was confirmed), wondering if they have harmed their baby in some way. Some caregivers refer to this as ‘reproductive anxiety’. This is also why so many mothers who experience a miscarriage or give birth to a baby with a health problem for no apparent reason, torture themselves with blame about whether it was because of the ‘sauna they had’, or the ‘alcohol they drank at a party’, feeling they may have been able to prevent it, ‘if only’ they had done the ‘right thing’.
To try and put this into perspective, it is important to remember that the human population as a whole carries around a 1.6.to 3% risk of producing a baby with some type of serious abnormality or birth defect (known as a ‘baseline risk’). If a pregnant woman is exposed to a substance or environmental factor that is thought to be harmful to her developing, unborn baby, her baby will not definitely be born with a problem. But her baseline risk may be increased from 1.6 to 3% to 5% or 10% (or higher depending on the type of substance, how much and how often the mother was exposed to it and the timing of when she was exposed). One study of over 2,700 women who gave birth to healthy babies demonstrated that around 68% of them had taken some form of over-the-counter medication or prescribed drug during their pregnancy.
Of the few babies who are born with serious abnormalities, about 20% are due to an inherited tendency or an environmental factor that has triggered this tendency (such as neural tube defects or the consequences of a health condition in the mother such as diabetes). About 17% are born with an inherited abnormal gene (for example cystic fibrosis) or a chromosomal abnormality (such as Down’s Syndrome). About 3% will have been harmed by an infectious virus (such as rubella) and less than 1% will be directly attributed to a recreational, prescribed or over-the-counter drugs. However, up to 60% of babies born with abnormal health conditions are due to unknown factors.
Changing some lifestyle factors may help pregnant women slightly improve their chances of having a healthy baby, but there are no guarantees. In addition, not all aspects of the environment are within their control. Factors such as environmental pollutants, electronic communication waves, pesticides and food chemicals surround pregnant women every day and there is little they can do to try and avoid them. In the same sense, nature can seem like it has no justice.
A healthy baby may be born to a woman who has used multiple harmful substances throughout her pregnancy, while another baby may be born with a heart defect to a woman who has lived in a rural area, eating organic foods and presumably doing everything ‘right’. In many cases, there will be no ‘rhyme or reason’ for “Why has it happened to me?”
Coming to terms with things you ‘may have taken or done’ (or did not do or take) can be difficult. It may also mean having to make difficult decisions, particularly if you are unwell and are faced with needing prescribed medications. The following are some things that have helped other women deal with their concerns:
- Remembering that more than 97 to 98% of babies are born well and healthy.
- Thinking that …yes there may have been a risk, and a very small possibility a problem could have been caused…but it is very unlikely.
- Seeing a genetic counsellor if you need information about the possible effects of your baby being seriously exposed to a substance or environmental hazard.
- Taking the attitude that “What is done, is done…I cannot change the past…I will try to feel positive for my baby and myself.”
- Reassuring yourself, “I am a good mother. I am doing the best I can.”
- Ignoring the often misinformed suggestions from others that you will be to blame if something ‘goes wrong’.
When problems do occur with your baby, it is usually an unreasonable conclusion to blame it on an isolated incident or a few doses of a medication. However, we acknowledge that guilt is hard to escape from.
Try to stay positive and do the best you can to deal with the realities of our modern life and the world we live in. If feelings of guilt seem to be consuming your thoughts then sharing your concerns with your caregiver, partner, a close family member or a trusted friend may help. You may find that speaking with a professional counsellor assists you to keep things in perspective.