When you're trying to get pregnant, that window of uncertainty between your ovulation and a missed period can feel like an eternity. But you don't have to sit around twiddling your thumbs until it's time to pee on a stick. "Everything we put into our bodies, for years prior to conceiving, makes up the microenvironment for our developing babies," says Jennifer Lang, M.D., a board-certified ob-gyn in Beverly Hills, California. If you suspect you might be expecting, there are certain things you can do to take care of your body (and your maybe-baby's) before you know for sure.
Clean up your diet. A healthy, well-balanced diet is a must for women trying to conceive or in the early stages of pregnancy. Loading up on protein, fruits, and vegetables will help keep you and your unborn baby at a healthy weight, help with baby's brain development, and provide you with adequate energy while pregnant. And pay special attention to how much sugar you're putting into your body. "High levels of sugar in the diet lead to insulin resistance, a major concern during pregnancy," says Dr. Lang.
Read the ingredients. Concerned about your exposure to toxins? Early pregnancy is a good time to take a closer look at the labels of common household items. Harmful chemicals can be found in many everyday products—including sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), parabens, or phthalates in shampoos and cosmetics; mercury in certain fish; and bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates in raincoats and backpacks.
Studies have found that a repeated exposure to these chemicals during pregnancy can negatively affect your unborn baby. For example, phthalates and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE), used in one class of flame retardant, have been linked to a decrease in a child's IQ, while BPA has been connected to aggression, hyperactivity, increased asthma rates, and cardiovascular issues in children. Bisphenol S, a common substitute for BPA, has also been linked to multiple health problems, Dr. Lang says.
Meanwhile, persistent organic pollutants (POPs), like dioxins, PCBs, and DDT, have been tied to diseases and abnormalities in a number of animal species. Heavy metals, such as mercury, lead, and arsenic, can also have adverse health effects when they accumulate in our systems, Dr. Lang explains. "POPs and heavy metals are stored in animal fat cells and are difficult to eliminate from the body once stored there," she says. "They can transfer into our bloodstream and cross the placenta."
It's tough to outright avoid these chemicals, but you can minimize your exposure, says Dr. Lang. Use natural household cleaners; stick with a mostly plant-based diet; and store food in stainless steel, ceramic, or glass containers instead of plastic whenever possible.
Take folic acid (or folate). This common pregnancy supplement helps prevent a serious birth defect of the spinal cord and brain by up to 70 percent, but there's good reason to take it at least three months before you conceive. "By the time a woman knows she is pregnant and begins taking prenatal vitamins, many key changes that require folate have already been made in the developing baby," Dr. Lang says. Docs recommend that you take 400 micrograms daily before or during pregnancy.
Missed the three-month window? Don't stress, but do start taking the vitamins and increase your intake of folate-rich foods, like spinach, lentils, and garbanzo beans, and folic acid–rich foods such as kale, spinach, orange juice, and enriched grains. A varied, balanced diet is always the best way to absorb nutrients. The supplement, Dr. Lang explains, is more like "an insurance policy."
Get moving. There will be times during your pregnancy when you're feeling extra tired, so if you're feeling good in the earliest stages, embrace it by staying active. Having an exercise routine in place now will make the habit easier to keep up once your body starts to change. That could mean taking regular, brisk walks or hitting the gym. Don't have a workout regimen? Start out with moderate activity, such as prenatal yoga or even a walk—just be sure to talk to your doctor about what's safe for you.
Take medications without a doctor's approval. Many prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) drugs are not safe for pregnant women, so read every label before you take medicine (even for a headache), and always double-check with your OB. While Tylenol (acetaminophen) has long been a go-to pregnancy pain-reliever, moderate use (more than three times a month) has been linked to higher rates of asthma and ADHD, and may raise the risk for behavioral problems in children.
Whenever possible, take a drug-free approach. Dr. Lang says, "It seems that so many of the meds we once considered perfectly safe in pregnancy are now associated with some adverse outcomes. So many headaches in pregnancy are due to neck muscle tension and strain, poor posture, and poor sleep. I would always begin with a holistic remedy and use prescription or OTC meds only with a doctor's approval if the previous natural remedies are not working." Staying hydrated, getting plenty of rest, exercising, and maintaining a healthy diet can go a long way, too.
Over-stress. Taking care of your body is important, but you also need to pay attention to your stress level. High cortisol levels in the early stages of pregnancy lead to higher rates of early miscarriage, premature birth, pregnancy-induced hypertension, fetal growth retardation, preeclampsia and premature birth, and postnatal developmental delays. Moderate exercise, meditation, and prenatal massage can all help combat stress and anxiety and allow your body to do its job.
Binge-eat. Think you have to eat for two? Not quite. In fact, pregnant women need to consume only about 300 extra calories a day to support their growing baby, and in the earliest weeks, they don't need to make any changes as long as they're already getting adequate nutrition. Talk to your doctor about how many calories you need to consume to maintain a healthy pregnancy. And of course you should indulge in some pregnancy cravings—it's a right of passage!—just don't overdo it.
Go out and party. We don't need to remind you that drugs and alcohol are no-no's during pregnancy, including in the very earliest days, when crucial brain development takes place in utero. Your best bet is to quit drinking when you decide you'd like to get pregnant, or at the very least, stop once you think you might be expecting. Likewise, smoking cigarettes during pregnacy or breathing in secondhand smoke can be harmful to a developing baby.