What you put in your body before becoming pregnant, during your pregnancy and after the birth can affect your baby. Eating the right foods, knowing what food and drink to avoid, regular exercise and quitting smoking and alcohol are all important if you are to increase your chances of a healthy pregnancy.
You don't need to 'eat for two' while you’re pregnant. You just need to have more of the nutrients your baby needs for their healthy development, and fewer foods that are high in salt, sugar and fat. These can be harmful both for you and your baby.
It’s recommended that you eat a wide variety of fruits and vegetables of different types and colours every day. You can also fill up on wholegrains – 8 to 8 ½ serves a day when you’re pregnant is fine. It’s important to eat foods that are high in iron, like red meat and tofu, and to eat plenty of dairy food, such as reduced fat milk, yoghurt or cheese for calcium. Eating fruits, vegetables and legumes and drinking plenty of water will help with any constipation.
It’s OK to have caffeine while you’re pregnant, but limit it to around 2 cups of coffee or 6 cups of tea a day.
It’s important not to get food poisoning while you’re pregnant, so avoid foods like soft cheeses, pate and raw eggs since they may contain bacteria. Be very careful to follow good hygiene practices when you’re preparing and storing food. It’s also a good idea not to eat more than one serve per fortnight of fish that have high levels of mercury. These include shark/flake, marlin and broadbill/swordfish.
Healthy weight gain
Being overweight or obese when you’re pregnant is linked to a range of health problems that can affect both you and your baby, including stillbirth or preterm birth, birth defects, high blood pressure, gestational diabetes and depression. Being significantly overweight can affect the birth and your ability to breastfeed. Overweight women will need extra care during pregnancy and at the birth.
Being underweight is also a problem in pregnancy. It can lead to greater risk of preterm birth or a small baby.
Your doctor will tell you how much weight it is recommended that you gain during the pregnancy. This will depend on how much weigh at the beginning. Even if you are a normal weight before you fall pregnant, gaining too much weight too quickly is bad for you and your baby.
If your doctor thinks you are gaining weight above or below the recommended level, you can see a dietitian to advise you what to eat.
Strict dieting to lose weight is not recommended while you are pregnant because it might mean the baby doesn't get all the nutrients they need.
Whenever you drink alcohol, it passes through the placenta and enters the baby’s bloodstream. Drinking alcohol increases the risk of miscarriage, stillbirth and premature birth. Heavy drinking can lead to fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, which can cause lifelong problems for your child.
If you drank a small amount of alcohol before you knew you were pregnant, it’s unlikely to have harmed your baby. But when you know you are pregnant, there is no safe level of drinking. The more you drink, the greater the potential harm to your baby. Binge drinking (drinking a lot of alcohol on one occasion) is especially dangerous for your baby.
For help managing alcohol during pregnancy, visit NOFASD Australia.
Smoking and passive smoking during pregnancy are very harmful to your baby. They increases the risk of pregnancy complications, preterm birth and miscarriage. They can also lead to low birthweight, sudden infant death syndrome, and long-term health problems in your child.
Many women quit when they find out they’re pregnant but then relapse. Don’t beat yourself up - it’s normal. Just try to quit again. If your partner can quit too, you’re more likely to succeed.
Your doctor will ask you if you smoke, and it’s important to tell them the truth. They can get support for you to quit, for example with nicotine replacement therapy or counselling.
It’s never too late to quit, so contact the Quitline for more information.
Pregnant women are encouraged to do some sort of physical activity every day. You should build up to between 150 and 300 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity each week.
Talk to your doctor about the best sort of physical activity for you. Brisk walking, swimming and cycling are all good choices. Joining a walking group, swim club or yoga class can keep your motivation up.
It’s best to avoid things that could injure your abdomen or put a lot of stress on your joints, like high impact or contact sports. Scuba diving is not suitable for pregnant women. Avoid exercising in the heat of the day and make sure you drink plenty of water while you’re physically active.
If you are planning to get pregnant, make sure you are up to date with your rubella (German measles) and varicella (chickenpox) vaccinations. Both of these diseases can cause serious complications for your baby.
- Influenza: Being pregnant puts you at much higher risk of complications from the flu (influenza). Influenza can be very serious for a newborn baby too. The best way of preventing flu is to have an influenza vaccination, which is free for all pregnant women under the National Immunisation Program.
- Whooping cough: Whooping cough can be deadly for newborn babies. Before they are old enough to be vaccinated, you can protect them by being vaccinated yourself. It’s recommended you have the whooping cough vaccine between 20 and 32 weeks into each pregnancy. It’s also free under the National Immunisation Program.
Exposure to chemicals
There are a several substances you should avoid while you’re pregnant. These include second-hand tobacco smoke, some household chemicals, radiation, bacteria and fungi, pressurisation, and chemicals at work.
Chemicals that can harm your baby include some antibiotics, sterilising chemicals, cleaning or laboratory supplies, pesticides or fertilisers. Your baby can be affected if you breathe, swallow or sometimes touch these. The risk depends on the chemical and the amount you come into contact with.
It’s important to speak to your employer if your work brings you into contact with chemicals or materials that could harm you or your baby. You are entitled by law to move to a safe job, even if you are a casual.
Looking after yourself
Looking after your mental health during pregnancy is just as important as looking after your physical health.
It’s quite normal to feel anxious while you’re pregnant, but if you think you may be experiencing symptoms of antenatal anxiety or depression, it’s important to seek help as quickly as you can. It can be treated .
Make sure you get plenty of rest and accept help from other people, especially if you’re looking after other children. You can also use relaxation techniques to ease stress and cope with being pregnant. Many women find guided muscle relaxation, breathing exercises or imagining calm, peaceful scenes to be helpful.
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Last reviewed: October 2021