Hesperian Health Guides
How to Stay Healthy During Pregnancy
The mother and her baby can stay healthy with:
- enough nutritious food.
- plenty of rest each day.
- avoidance of chemicals, alcohol, smoke, and most medications.
- care from a midwife or other health worker who can treat, or get help to treat, any health problems that may occur.
- love and kindness.
Eat enough nutritious foods
A mix of nutritious food will keep the woman strong and healthy, so she can have energy for the birth and to care for the baby. If a pregnant woman does not eat enough, it may be that she is saving food for others in the family, or that a well-meaning mother-in-law or friend has told her to avoid certain foods or that staying small will make the birth easier. Remember, a pregnant woman must eat enough for herself and for the baby, so she needs more food than other adults, not less. Pregnant women, like everyone, need a mix of protein, vegetables, fruits, and starches. And they should eat more often, snacking throughout the day. For advice on how to eat well, see Good Food Makes Good Health.
A variety of foods keeps the mother and baby healthy.
Anemia (lack of iron in the blood) is common during pregnancy. It leads to a feeling of tiredness. Anemia is especially dangerous for pregnant women because blood is lost during birth. This can make the anemia so severe the woman can die. Prevent anemia by eating protein and iron-rich foods and taking iron tablets. See more information about iron and iron supplements.
Lack of folic acid (folate) can cause deformities and disabilities in the baby. Choose an iron supplement that includes folic acid, or take a separate folic acid supplement. See more on folic acid.
Orange and green vegetables and fruits contain vitamin A, a nutrient needed to keep the eyes healthy. A pregnant woman needs extra green and orange vegetables and fruits because the vitamin A she eats goes to meet the baby’s needs first. Lack of vitamin A can cause night blindness or blindness in general.
Encourage family and neighbors to share the work and responsibilities of the pregnant woman. Remind her, especially as she gets farther along in her pregnancy, to rest and put her feet up a few times a day or to lie down in the afternoon. Growing a baby is work for the body and it needs rest.
Avoid harmful substances
Smoke and tobacco
Cigarettes and tobacco harm the mother’s lungs and can cause cancer and death. Smoke can cause babies to be born early or small, or born dead. Mothers and babies can even be harmed by other people smoking nearby. Remind family and others to avoid smoking in the same room or car with a pregnant woman or children.
Alcohol and drugs
When a pregnant woman drinks alcohol it passes to her baby and can permanently damage the baby’s brain and body. The more alcohol she drinks, the more harm is caused. Likewise, cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, and other drugs are harmful to pregnant women and to their babies. See Drugs, Alcohol, and Tobacco (in development) for help with drugs and alcohol.
Most medicines, when taken by a pregnant woman, also pass to her baby. And because babies are so small and still developing, medicines that are safe for an adult can cause birth defects or other harm to the baby. So pregnant women should avoid most medicines. Rest and fluids — not medicines — are the best treatment for minor problems like headaches, stomach aches, and colds.
But some illnesses are too harmful to leave untreated throughout pregnancy. The illness may be dangerous to the baby too. Illnesses in pregnant women that should always be treated with medicines include:
- HIV or AIDS. See HIV and AIDS (in development).
- urinary tract infections. See Difficulties with Urinating (in development).
- sexually transmitted infections such as chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis. See Sexually Transmitted Infections.
To know if a particular medicine is safe in pregnancy and during breastfeeding, ask an experienced health worker, check the medicines pages at the end of this chapter, or look in other medicine guidebooks. If a medicine that is needed is unsafe, there is usually another medicine that can be used instead.
Traditional and plant medicines can also do more harm than good. Medicines, Tests, and Treatments (in development) suggests ways to decide when considering the use of traditional medicines.
Avoid sick people
Being sick while pregnant is miserable. It can make eating difficult too, and not getting enough food drains the woman of energy. Avoid sick people to prevent getting sick yourself.
German measles (rubella) is a sickness that is not usually a serious problem, but when it strikes a pregnant woman it can cause deformities and disabilities in a baby inside the womb. To protect the baby, a pregnant woman should avoid people with rashes, especially children, who often get these infections. Even a pregnant woman’s own sick children should be cared for by other family members or friends. A community-wide vaccination program is the best protection for all women.
Care from a midwife or other health worker
An experienced midwife or other health worker can advise a pregnant woman on how to stay healthy and safe, treat common problems and discomforts, and recognize when a pregnant woman needs help at a hospital or medical center. All women should get care from a compassionate, knowledgeable health worker during pregnancy, birth, and in the weeks that follow.
A pregnant woman should be vaccinated against tetanus as early as possible in pregnancy. She should get a second booster 4 weeks later if she may not be fully up-to-date on her vaccinations. This protects both the woman and her baby. For more details, see the Vaccines chapter.
Simple tests can diagnose many of the diseases that are most harmful to pregnant women and their babies. These tests alert the mother and health worker to start treatment right away, which can prevent serious problems during or after the birth. It is wise to test for:
- anemia (with the hemoglobin or hematocrit test).
- malaria (using rapid tests where malaria is common).
HIV testing should be available for all pregnant women. When a woman learns she has HIV, she can take medicines that can keep her healthy and protect her baby from the virus. HIV and AIDS (in development) includes information on testing and the medicines that pregnant women with HIV should take.
There are new versions of these tests that do not require a lab and are easily done by swabbing the inside of the mouth or vagina, or taking a tiny amount of blood from a prick of the finger. Ask at a local health center if these tests are provided by the government, or if there is a local organization that offers them.