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Preconception health for women

6-minute read

Being as healthy as possible in the months before you try to have a baby has been shown to boost your chances of falling pregnant and give your baby a better chance of good health throughout their whole life. These simple steps will help you become as healthy and fit as possible before you become a mum.

If you want to conceive a baby, it is important to:

  • begin trying before you are 35, if possible
  • be in a healthy weight range
  • quit smoking
  • take folate
  • stop or reduce alcohol intake
  • treat health conditions that could affect your fertility

About your age

The most important thing that affects your fertility is your age. It’s much easier for women to conceive a baby before they turn 35. After that, you don’t have as many eggs and their quality decreases over time.

Although most older women in Australia do have healthy, happy babies, after 30 the risks that the baby will have a chromosomal or genetic abnormality increases – from 1 in 400 for a woman aged 30 to 1 in 100 for a woman aged 40. You are also more at risk of miscarriage and pregnancy complications when you’re older.

Take folate

Taking folate, or 'folic acid' supplements, before you get pregnant is important for preventing neural tube defects in your baby. It is recommended to take folate at least 1 month before you conceive and for the first 3 months of your pregnancy.

You can source folic acid supplements from pharmacies or your doctor at varying doses. Look for supplements that contain at least 400 micrograms of folic acid; they will normally be referred to as special pregnancy supplements. You can also get folate in foods like wholegrain bread, dark green leafy vegetables and dried beans, chickpeas and lentils.

Get a check-up

It’s a good idea to have a general medical check-up before you try for a baby. You can talk to your doctor about any tests you might need, and whether you should avoid any medicines you might be taking.

If you or your partner have a family history of genetic conditions, you can talk to your doctor about screening. It’s better not to do a DNA test yourself.

It’s a good idea to talk to your doctor about your emotional health, domestic violence or mental health conditions, as you may need more care and support during your pregnancy if any of these apply to you.

Some conditions can affect your chances of falling pregnant. These include:

Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS): Most women with PCOS can still fall pregnant, but it might take longer. The best thing you can do is eat healthily, exercise regularly and look after your general health.

Endometriosis: About 3 in 10 women with endometriosis will have problems falling pregnant, but medicines and surgery can help. If you have endometriosis, see your doctor as early as possible before you try for a baby.

Diabetes: Both type 1 and type 2 diabetes can affect your chances of falling pregnant. You should talk to your doctor about 3 to 6 months before you want to conceive to make sure your diabetes is under control. If you do fall pregnant, you will need special care to make sure your diabetes is well controlled, for both your health and for the baby’s.

Sexual health: Check that you don’t have a sexually transmitted infection, as this might lead to infertility. Having a test before conception also reduces the risk of passing on an infection to your partner or the baby.

If you have a medical condition like cancer, talk to your doctor if you think you'd like to have a baby. There are ways to preserve your fertility, such as freezing your eggs, but your doctor needs to know your wishes before any treatment starts.

Complementary or alternative medicines

Complementary or alternative medicines, such as acupuncture, herbal medicines and massage, might help your general wellbeing, but there is no evidence it can improve your fertility. It's always best to talk to your doctor before starting any complementary or alternative therapies.

Your lifestyle matters

Being a healthy weight increases your chances of conceiving a healthy baby. Being overweight affects the quality of your eggs and makes it harder to conceive. Being underweight can also affect your fertility.

The best way of achieving a healthy weight is to eat a nutritious diet and exercise regularly. If you are overweight or obese, even losing just a few kilos will help.

It’s a good idea for you and your partner to encourage each other to lead a healthy lifestyle. Follow the Australian Dietary Guidelines and aim for a variety of healthy foods every day and fewer foods containing added salt, sugar and fat.

Every week, try to do 2½ to 5 hours of moderate intensity physical activity, or 1¼ to 2½ hours of vigorous intensity activity. Simply sitting less and moving more will help. Find easy ways to build physical activity into your lifestyle from the Department of Health’s website.

Things to avoid

Smoking: There is no safe limit for smoking. If you are trying to have a baby, it’s important to quit at least 3 months before you start trying for a baby. Smokers are more likely to have a miscarriage, a low birthweight baby, a premature baby or a baby with birth defects. Even inhaling other people’s smoke (passive smoking) is dangerous in pregnancy.

If you’re still smoking when you fall pregnant, it’s not too late – just quit as soon as you can in the first 3 months. For help quitting, contact Quitline on 13 7848.

Drinking: Even drinking just a little can delay conception. Heavy drinking – more than 7 drinks a week or more than 3 on one occasion – is more likely to contribute to fertility problems, and it reduces your chance of having a healthy baby. It’s also a good idea to limit caffeine before you try to conceive.

Medicines: Your doctor will let you know if it’s OK to keep taking your medicines and any vitamins or supplements while you’re trying to conceive. Medicines that can affect your fertility include pain relief medication that contains opiates as well as medicines to treat depression and anxiety. Cancer treatments like chemotherapy and radiotherapy can also affect your fertility. But don’t stop taking any medicines without your doctor’s advice.

Drugs: Avoid all recreational drugs like cocaine, heroin, ecstasy and marijuana, as these can lead to permanent fertility problems.

Chemicals: Toxins and pollutants both at work and in daily life can affect your fertility. These include pesticides, heavy metals, some chemicals and plastics, and radiation. Try to limit your exposure to these. For more information, visit Your Fertility.

Where to get help

You can find more information from:

  • Your Fertility for more information on female and male fertility
  • Jean Hailes for Women’s Health for more information on women's health
  • Your doctor
  • Call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby on 1800 882 436 to talk to a maternal child health nurse

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: May 2021

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