Pregnancy is a time of enormous emotional and physical change – and that’s before the stork drops off your little package! For nine months you’re in charge of a tiny, dependent life in a way you won’t ever be again, so when it comes to looking after your body it’s even more crucial you get it right.
That said, pregnancy is no time to stress out and overhaul your life. Health and fitness changes should be the focus prior to pregnancy and the nine months leading up to the birth should simply be a time of adjustment as the baby grows and develops.
Talk to the experts
We’re fortunate to live in a country where there is a surfeit of information about anything and everything. Nevertheless, it can be a struggle differentiating between what’s right and what’s wrong. Pregnancy is an extraordinary time, but for many first-time mothers it can also be taxing. What to eat? What not to eat? How much weight gain is normal? How do I look after my body to make sure I’m nourishing my baby as best as I can? Should I take vitamins? Which ones?
There is no one formula for everyone and as soon as you start focusing on what’s best for you individually you’re on the right track. A pre-conception appointment with your doctor is wise and a good time to discuss supplements and vitamins (most women will be advised to take folic acid before conception and many women will take other nutrients throughout pregnancy, such as iodine, iron, docosahexaenoic acid, chromium and calcium), exercise, nutrition and your health history.
Move your body
With a normal, healthy pregnancy you should be able to keep exercising. In fact, according to two studies presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in the USA, exercising while pregnant may give the unborn baby a neurological advantage and many studies state that women who exercise have quicker and less painful natural labours.
Healthy women who already have a regular exercise regimen should be able to exercise as normal during the first trimester.
Although you may not feel like it (many pregnant women cite the first trimester as the time they feel most fatigued) the rewards are worth it. Personal Trainer Genevieve Brock says, “Exercising in the first trimester can be challenging for the expectant mother – battling lethargy, sometimes unpredictable nausea and morning sickness too, but most forms of exercise can still be performed – and are encouraged!”
During the second trimester the physical effects of pregnancy start to kick in (pun intended) and it’s advisable that women modify exercises, using common sense and expert advice as a guide.
"With a normal, healthy pregnancy you should be able to keep exercising"
“During this time the hormone relaxin is released, which loosens ligaments, putting expectant mothers at a higher risk of joint injuries,” explains Brock. “Blood pressure drops and balance and co-ordination can also be compromised, so it’s not ideal to perform exercise movements rapidly or change position frequently. For example, doing a burpee that requires a burst of speed and changing from low to high is discouraged.”
There is even more physical strain on the body in the third trimester and the intensity of cardiovascular exercise and weights sets, reps and selections will need to be modified. “I recommend walking as it is extremely versatile, safe and gentle. Swimming and cycling (particularly on a stationary bike) is good too,” Brock explains. “Weight training is great because it can be completely modified during each trimester of pregnancy. Just be sure you speak to a personal trainer about correct exercise selection.”
“Yoga is brilliant,” adds Sue Croft, an Australian Physiotheraphy Association physiotherapist. “It incorporates the mind component and it’s important for the soon-to-be-mum to be as calm and happy as possible throughout the pregnancy. Yoga is adaptable too. You can hold poses for less time, be careful with stretching, and chat about poses with your physiotherapist or instructor as your pregnancy progresses.”
Care for your core and pelvic floor
Specialists in the field stress the importance of a strong core and pelvic floor even before pregnancy. A strong core may help diminish back problems as the pregnancy progresses and is said to aid a quicker recovery after birth, while strong pelvic floor muscles are imperative when it comes to giving birth. Croft, who has special interest in health and continence promotion, can’t stress the importance of strengthening the pelvic floor muscles enough: “Women need to know how to do pelvic floor contractions – it’s one of the most important things they can do.” A strong pelvic floor helps support extra pregnancy weight and can often shorten the second stage of labour (when you push the baby out) – and you’ll be less likely to experience continence problems after delivery – unfortunately something that is often skimmed over.
Eat well … just not for two
The phrase “eating for two” is misguiding and shouldn’t be used as an excuse for overindulging. Sure, cravings are the body’s way of saying it wants or needs a certain flavour or nutrient, and giving into pregnancy cravings is part of the fun, however, it’s important to eat well most of the time.
It’s natural and healthy to put on weight and most women in the healthy weight range should add anywhere from 11 to 16 kilograms, depending on their height, build and diet. The extra weight is a mix of baby weight, placenta, amniotic fluid, breast changes, muscle, fat, blood volume and extra fluid.
Women don’t need any extra kilojoules in the first trimester, around 1400 kilojoules in the second trimester, and only an additional 500 kilojoules in the third trimester. “Nutrient-dense foods such as vegetables, fruits and good-quality proteins and fats are the best sources of energy as they will fill you up while providing the essential nutrients and building blocks for healthy foetal development,” explains Kate Dalgleish, naturopath and founder of the naturopathic wellness website, Charlie’s Choice (charlieschoice.com.au).
A well-balanced diet prior to falling pregnant is ideal and Dalgleish recommends at least a couple of months of prep work before trying for a family. “This ensures you and your partner are baby healthy and should include reducing or removing alcohol, coffee (replacing with tea), starting a good-quality natal multivitamin (for women), a zinc and vitamin C (for men as it helps to produce good-quality sperm), eating deep-sea fish once or twice a week, eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, and having your vitamin D and iron levels checked. These nutrients are essential for healthy foetal development and it’s important not to be deficient before you fall pregnant.”
There are foods that pregnant women need to avoid, too: raw seafood and meat, a variety of soft and uncooked cheeses, undercooked eggs, meat and poultry, and patês of any kind are on the don’t-eat list. The Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend pregnant women omit alcohol as the effects are not known, although some women feel comfortable having a small glass of wine on special occasions.
The key to remember is that while we’re all different, our bodies are designed to have babies. Millions of women around the world prove this every second – and even go on to do it again and again! – so relax and enjoy your pregnancy.