The following health information is good advice for women who know they are pregnant.
Foods to avoid
Severe food poisoning during pregnancy can cause miscarriage, stillbirth or damage to the developing baby. Pregnant women are advised to avoid foods that have a higher risk of causing food poisoning. The following foods can contain harmful bacteria. You should avoid them, and any foods made with them, if you are pregnant.
- Unpasteurised milk and cheese. Check food labels to make sure milk is pasteurised.
- Soft-cooked or raw eggs, for instance in homemade mayonnaise or mousse. Check food labels to make sure eggs are pasteurised.
- Soft cheeses with rind, such as Brie. You can eat cottage cheese and processed cheese spread.
- Blue cheeses, such as Stilton.
- Undercooked meat, including pâté, or cold prepared meals and cook-chill foods.
- Shellfish, such as mussels, prawns and clams.
Other foods contain substances that can harm an unborn baby, and you should avoid eating them. These foods are:
- Vitamin A supplements (including cod liver oil).
- Liver (including liver pâté) contains high levels of vitamin A so
limit this to no more than one portion a week.
- Fish such as swordfish, marlin and shark, which can contain high levels of mercury. You can eat tuna, but it contains some mercury, so don’t have more than four 140g tins of tuna a week.
- Peanuts or foods containing peanuts. If you, your partner or any of your children are allergic to peanuts or have severe allergies or asthma, eczema or hayfever, avoid eating peanuts during pregnancy.
You should also limit your intake of some other foods which if taken in excess may be harmful. These are:
- Oily fish – limit to no more than two portions a week during pregnancy. This is because it can contain traces of pollutants. Examples of oily fish include fresh tuna (not canned), mackerel, sardines and trout
- Caffeine – found in tea, coffee, chocolate, some soft drinks and some cold remedies. It affects how your body absorbs iron which is important for your baby’s development. High levels can cause low birth weight or even miscarriage. See ‘summary and checklist’ below
You can find out more information about healthy eating before and during pregnancy by talking to your doctor, nurse or midwife, or from:
Toxoplasmosis is an infection caused by a parasite that can live in soil, raw meat and cat faeces. Infection with toxoplasmosis during pregnancy can cause miscarriage, stillbirth, or damage to the baby’s eyes, ears or brain. To reduce the risk of infection, avoid changing cat litter (if you have to do it, wear gloves and wash your hands afterwards), wear gloves when gardening and wash all soil off fruit and vegetables.
You should also wash your hands thoroughly after handling uncooked meat, and keep uncooked and cooked meat separate.
You should not have an x-ray while you are pregnant unless it is essential for your health. Tell your doctor or dentist if you are pregnant or trying for a baby.
Both you and your partner should start, or keep up, regular exercise as regular exercise will improve your health and help reduce stress, but if you are not used to exercise, start off slowly. The more active and fit you are the easier it will be for you to cope comfortably with pregnancy.
Walking and swimming are good ways to start getting fit, and a yoga or Pilates class can help with relaxation and muscle tone. Whatever exercise you do, talk to your doctor or exercise instructor as you may need to adapt the exercises you do.
You should avoid exercise or sports where there is a risk of being hit in the abdomen, such as martial arts. You should take extra care during activities where there is a risk of falling or losing your balance, such as cycling and horse riding. You should also avoid any strenuous exercise in hot weather and remember to drink plenty of water or other fluids.
You can find out more information and advice about pre-pregnancy exercise, and exercise during pregnancy, from your general practice – ask your doctor or practice nurse.
Try to stop smoking if you or your partner smokes. Stopping smoking may be the most important thing you can do for the health of you and your baby. Women who smoke during pregnancy have a greater risk of:
- Giving birth too early (premature birth)
- Complications during and after pregnancy and labour
- Having low birth weight babies.
Babies who have low birth weight or are born prematurely are more likely to have health problems and are at higher risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS, or cot death).
Try not to start smoking again after you’ve had your baby. Babies whose parents smoke are more likely to suffer from coughs and chest infections, and are at higher risk of SIDS.
If you or your partner needs help, support or practical advice on giving up smoking, you can:
- Go to your general practice – talk to your doctor, practice nurse or midwife
- Ask your pharmacist
- Contact the NHS Smoking Cessation Service http://www.nhsdg.scot.nhs.uk/Departments_and_Services/Smoking_Matters/Smoking_Matters_Home
Many women ask how much is safe to drink during pregnancy. Experts are still unsure exactly how much, if any, alcohol is completely safe for you to have while you're pregnant, so the safest approach is not to drink at all.
Alcohol can damage sperm production, so men should cut down on drinking too. If a woman drinks heavily and frequently in pregnancy, or regularly binge drinks (has five or more units of alcohol on any one occasion), this can harm her baby’s development and health.
How many units?
- One unit = a single pub measure of spirits (alcopops contain around 1.5 units), half a pint of beer, lager or cider at 3.5% alcohol by volume (ABV) or half a standard (175ml) glass of wine at 11.5% ABV
- Two units = a pint of ordinary strength lager, bitter or cider; or a 175ml glass of
wine (depending on the alcohol content of the wine)
- Three units = a pint of strong lager, bitter or cider.
Very heavy drinking can lead to fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) and fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD). These describe a range of symptoms that can be caused by alcohol in pregnancy, including damage to the facial features, brain, heart and kidneys, and learning difficulties and behavioural problems in later life.
Many pregnancies are unplanned. You may have had a one-off binge and then later discover that you conceived at or around this time. Many women worry that this might have caused harm to the baby. It is thought that a single episode of binge drinking is unlikely to be harmful to a woman or her baby.
If you or your partner find it difficult to cut down on alcohol, you can get help and support from your general practice – talk to your doctor, nurse or midwife.
Some occupations, such as working as a radiographer or working with chemicals, expose you to substances or surroundings that may be harmful if you become pregnant. If you are concerned, speak to your manager or health and safety officer to find out more.
Summary and checklist
Most pregnancies go well and without any major problems. But it is wise to reduce any risks as much as possible. So, a reminder of things to consider before becoming pregnant, or as soon as you realise that you are pregnant...
- Things you should do
- Take folic acid and vitamin D tablets before you get pregnant until 12 weeks of pregnancy.
- Have a blood test to check if you are immune against rubella, and to screen for hepatitis B, syphilis, and HIV.
- Eat a healthy diet. Include foods rich in iron, calcium and folic acid.
- Wash your hands after handling raw meat, or handling cats and kittens.
- Wear gloves when you are gardening.
- Things you should avoid
- Too much vitamin A - don't eat liver or liver products, or take vitamin A tablets.
- Listeriosis - don't eat undercooked meat or eggs, soft cheese, shellfish, raw fish, or unpasteurised milk.
- Fish, which may contain a lot of mercury - shark, marlin, swordfish, or excess tuna.
- Sheep, lambs, cat faeces, cat litters, and raw meat, which may carry certain infections.
- Peanuts - if you have a personal or family history of eczema, hay fever, or asthma.
- Things you should stop or cut down
- Caffeine in tea, coffee, cola, etc, - have no more than 200 mg per day. This is in about 2 mugs of instant coffee, one mug of filter coffee, 2 mugs of tea, 5 cans of regular cola or 4 (50g) bars of plain chocolate (milk chocolate has less coffee in it than plain chocolate).
- Alcohol - you are strongly advised not to drink at all.
- Smoking - you are strongly advised to stop completely.
- Street drugs - you are strongly advised to stop completely.
- Other things to consider
- Immunisation against hepatitis B if you are at increased risk of getting this infection.
- Immunisation against chickenpox if you are a healthcare worker and have not previously had chickenpox and so are not immune.
- Your medication - including herbal and 'over the counter' medicines.
- Your work environment - is it safe?
- Medical conditions in yourself, or conditions that run in your family.