Top Tips for a Healthy Pregnancy

Hi my name is Sharon and my greastest claim to fame is that I am the mother of 3 busy boys; aged 6,5 and 2. I have a background in physical therapy and now run online prenatal classes.

My pregnancies are a distant memory…until a friend tells me they have just found out they are pregnant and their pale, drawn face transports me to mornings of metallic tastes, naartjies left all around the house, sleeping wherever and whenever and wondering how anyone can say they enjoy this!

Or walking down the street, I spot a beautiful round tummy attached to a woman's front and it reminds me of THAT feeling: like you are the chosen lady, the one singled out from all others to carry this child. I remember feeling so privileged, so needed, so important, so purposeful. 

Then there is the mother of many, grasping her back as her oversized bump pulls her forward. She has a kid on each arm, ankles that could demo elephantitis and the memories flood back: memories of night toilet trips, very big clothes and pondering how such exhaustion will manage through labour and birth!

Pregnancy is an intense time for any woman; a season of many highs and many lows, a season that changes our lives forever!

Someone once jokingly told me pregnancy is divided into 3 trimesters: dreary, cheary and weary. 

It is actually a very apt description of what most women experience:

  • First trimester(0-12 weeks) - DREARY This is the most vulnerable period for the foetus where the most growth is happening. A pregnant woman often feels her worst (extreme tiredness, mood swings and nausea) and there is no obvious showing yet, so not much sympathy or support. It is also the period of many appointments and tests.
  • Second trimester(13-27 weeks) - CHEARY  The bump finally appears, you have a lot more energy, the foetus has developed most of his/ her organs and is just growing in size and weight and you start to feel the first few movements.
  • Third trimester (28weeks - term) - WEARY Generally you feel tired and uncomfortable and very impatient to have pregnancy behind you and your baby with you!

In our modern world and for the modern woman, pregnancy doesn't slip into our lives conveniently and subtly. It can ruin our worlds - unless we make adjustments and intentionally plan for a healthy pregnancy and a fantastic future with our children.

These are my TOP 10 TIPS FOR A HEALTHY PREGNANCY:

NUTRITION: Many great books have been written on the subject of Nutrition in Pregnancy so there is a lot of valuable knowledge out there but some of the basic truths to embrace would be:

  • Eat smaller meals more often. It will help with digestion and won't leave you uncomfortable as your uterus pushes up on the stomach.
  • Make sure you are on a good multivitamin. You should have started supplementing with folic acid before conception - it contains B9 and is found in leafy greens like spinach and kale as well as orange juice and some grains. It has been proven to reduce the risk of neural tube defects such as spina bifida by up to 70%. 
  • Try to increase your fruit and veg intake, eat about 70g of protein a day and prioritize whole grains like wholewheat breads, cereals and pasta, brown rice and oats.
  • Try to avoid transfats and saturated fats but good fats are found in cooked eggs, flaxseeds, nuts and oily fish. Drink lots of water and include fibre where possible.
  • Avoid liver, meat pate, unpasteurised soft or blue cheeses, raw eggs and raw meat.

EXERCISE: Most of us know that staying fit and healthy will help to promote a healthy pregnancy, healthy baby and potentially prevent complications at labour and birth. If you are used to keeping very fit with lots of intense workouts, you will need to reduce this level to a mild to moderate intensity. Never exercise into discomfort or pain while you are pregnant. A 20 minute session 3 times a week is probably a good amount to aim at. Remember to stay well hydrated throughout your exercise sessions and warm up and cool down slowly and well before and after each session. Sports to avoid during pregnancy would be horse-riding, water-skiing and scuba diving for obvious reasons. There are many sports, however, that are perfectly safe and good for you during your pregnancy: 

  • Cycling is an excellent aerobic activity - it can give you a great cardiovascular workout but you can still manage your pace and resistance (particularly on a stationary bike which reduces risks associated with riding on roads)
  • Swimming is another excellent option for pregnant women. You may be able to sign up for an aqua aerobics class near you. Otherwise, just swimming lengths will give you a cardiovascular training without any weightbearing.
  • General strength and toning is also good during pregnancy especially for your upper body. Most women underestimate the extra weight that you will carry around for many hours of the day and night once baby arrives. If you deliver a healthy baby, within a few weeks, he or she could well be weighing 5kg or more and you are holding, carrying, feeding that deadweight through the day and night which puts a lot of extra strain on your neck and back. Pregnancy is a great time to pull out those light dumbells and get your biceps looking fine!

During my last few years working as a physical therapist, I trained as a Pilates instructor and was running a number of classes a week through my first 2 pregnancies and I am convinced it helped me a great deal coping with the process and pain of labour. I stopped running classes after my 2nd child purely out of busyness so for my 3rd pregnancy, I was probably at my weakest and most unfit and my 3rd labour was the longest and most difficult. Hence, I am a great advocator of Pilates. A regular once or twice-weekly class will afford you many benefits:

  • It will improve your circulation (probably your sleep and digestion as a result), your flexibility, balance, stamina and even your movement control. Moreover there is an emphasis on concentration which can prepare you mentally for labour and birth. If you feel confident that you can focus your mind and relax different areas of your body, especially the muscles in your pelvis, you can approach the unknowns of labour with a far more positive and assertive attitude than most. 
  • Another bonus is that Pelvic Floor Exercises are an integrated part of most of the exercise classes so it doubles as a great routine to make sure you are getting that pelvic floor ready for labour and birth. Besides the benefits for actual birth, the more control you have of your pelvic floor before birth, the faster you are likely to recover after birth.

Imagine your spouse or partner, while doing some heavy weightlifting at gym, tore a muscle in his leg. He would not only rest long enough for the muscle tissue to heal but he would also probably see a physical therapist or biokineticist and rehab that muscle back to full strength and function. For some reason, with a woman’s pelvic floor, we just don’t have the same approach. Your pelvic floor holds a very important function throughout your life, not just for delivering your babies. A woman needs to exercise and train this sling of muscles effectively to prevent problems like incontinence or prolapse later on in life.

 

EMOTIONAL ADJUSTMENT: This takes time and intentionality and yet, by definition, while you're pregnant you're not actually sure what to expect so it becomes difficult to prepare. The clinical psychologist who lectures the session 'Becoming a Parent' on our Just Engage Course, CJ L'Hoste, actually gives the couples a list of questions to answer together. This helps them to communicate about their different expectations for after the birth and allows them to discuss the different roles they will fulfill. One of the biggest adjustments is for a mom who is used to very productive days with full to-do lists. She will need to adjust to long days of very little being achieved outside of the repetitive tasks of feeding, changing and holding her baby. Only getting to shower at 10 or 11 a.m might become her new 'routine' and she will need to find her self-esteem in how she is devoting herself to her newborn as opposed to how many deals she signed or how much money she earned.

 

REST: Again, for high-achiever women, I cannot overstate the importance of slowing down now that you are expecting a baby. There is a little person developing his/ her vital organs inside of you and drawing everything it needs from your body. Do not be selfish - this is the first of many moments to stop thinking of what you’d like to do and think about what you need to do for the baby. One of the worst things you could pump into their bloodstream is stress hormones. Obviously, in our modern world with many women working up as close to the birth of their babies as possible, to remove all stress would be impossible but try to limit your stress as much as possible:

  • Sleep- is essential. Your body needs to recover and rest and replenish its energy to cope with the demands of your baby’s growth. If you are struggling to sleep: try a glass of milk or chamomile tea before bed. If you are used to working on a laptop late into the night, try to change your routine. Rather work at another time of the day and then read a book later or do something that will relax you.
  • Find comfortable positions so that even if you can’t sleep, your body can rest as much as possible. The best position is lying on your left side with a pillow between your knees. 
  • Heartburn can also interrupt or delay valuable sleep. Gaviscon is your friend. It comes in effervescent tablets and a syrup. You might think the effervescent tablets are more practical and lady-like but when my heartburn got bad, I literally used to carry the bottle around with me in my bag and take a swig whenever I needed it. Its a thick, viscous liquid that lines the top of your stomach contents so you don’t have so much reflux of the gastric juices. DESPERATE TIMES - DESPERATE MEASURES…

MAKE GOOD CHOICES: Preparing for birth means there are a number of questions that need to answered:

  • Where will I give birth to my baby? Government hospital, private clinic or hospital, home birth or Active Birth Unit
  • Who will be my primary practitioner? Obstetrician, family doctor or private midwife.
  • Who will support me through labour and birth? Hospital midwives, private midwife, doula, husband, birth partner etc

Your choices around these questions will definitely play a role in determining the outcome of your labour and birth and early parenting experiences. Remember that apathy and procrastination are a choice in themselves and have consequences.

 

TIME WITH FAMILIES AND TIME WITH NEW MOMS: I think this is a value under-rated in our Westernised culture. As a first-time pregnant lady, most of your social circles are probably similar aged people with few or no small children. Work functions rarely include kids and family get-togethers might well not have babies or young children involved. It can be really helpful to build a good honest relationship with a family near you where you can spend extended time with them as a family. Watching how they parent their kids, how they cope with sleep deprivation, how they structure their time and what they discuss in conversation can all add to your processing the values and ideals you hold for your developing family that your newborn will soon enter. Meeting up with new moms can help to glean valuable tips or the latest in services and products they have accessed so you can set yourself up for success.

 

READ: Someone once told me, "Readers are leaders and leaders are readers". Relevant information about labour and birth has been shown to reduce fear in women as they anticipate what is about to happen to them to bring their child into the world. Birth aside, knowledge is power and there are so many valuable sources of information accessible to us to prepare us for life with a baby. The key is to read wisely so you are learning what is true and what is helpful. We need to be able to trust what we are reading otherwise we can't apply it to our lives.

 

WRITE A BIRTHPLAN BUT BE FLEXIBLE: Putting in writing how you would ideally like your labour and birth to play out is a very helpful exercise. It can help you communicate clearly with your health care professionals and make important decisions which you do have control over. Nevertheless, birth is an unpredictable process and a woman who gets her heart set on the event playing out in a particular way might well be setting herself up for disappointment which isn't necessary. After a healthy mom and baby, the mom having a positive birth experience should be a high priority so write your birth plan with that in mind.

 

PREP THE DAD: There is really no excuse for fathers-to-be to feel under-prepared and intimidated by the first few weeks with a newborn and the long road of parenting ahead. In our parents' generation, fathers were excluded from most preparatory forums and were often even excluded from the birth. Nowadays, there are websites and businesses run exclusively to give dads the support, education and advice they need to confidently step up to the plate.

Fathering children is potentially the most needed occupation in the world today. Give your man the space and the opportunity to develop himself ahead of the birth in a way that is comfortable and appropriate for him. Often, a man discovering his ability to father can enhance and deepen his marriage which children will benefit from and be grateful for too.

 

SIGN UP FOR A BIRTHING CLASS: There is a definite move away from doing these valuable courses. Both men and women, with busy schedules and travel itineraries, can't commit to traditional courses and rely largely on books or wikipedia to prepare them for this new season in their lives. To combat this, I launched Just Engage - a completely online prenatal solution with video lectures, online discussion forums and mentorship through the modules by myself and a growing team. All the content can be accessed online and you can enjoy more than 10 different lecturers on topics ranging from labour and birth to vaccinations, skin-to-skin and CPR over a 6 week period.

 

For more info, visit www.justengage.co.zaor e-mail admin@justengage.co.za

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