Close up photo of a mother and baby
Whether you are hoping to conceive or newly pregnant, here's some good advice to help give your baby the healthiest start [Image: Virginiamol - Morguefile]

How to grow a healthy baby

13 December, 2012

“Will my baby be all right?” There can’t be a prospective mother alive who hasn’t wondered this at some point before and after conception.

In order to confirm whether or not the baby is all right we now use a whole range of antenatal procedures including ultrasound, blood tests and fetal heart monitors. But while these may be superficially reassuring, they can only tell you if something is wrong. None can help you grow a healthier baby.

The truth is only healthy parents can make a healthy baby.  And one of the best ways to ensure the health of your baby is to positively address your own health and lifestyle before conceiving. Dealing with vitamin and mineral deficiencies, stress and underlying infections can not only make conceiving easier, it can provide the best possible start in life for your baby.

According to Foresight, the preconceptual care group, once you get rid of the drugs, bugs and toxins, there is usually nothing standing in the way of having a healthy baby. While many women are told that it’s down to genetics if they have trouble conceiving or produce a baby with a birth defect that is not necessarily borne out by the research.

We all have genetic weaknesses, but that doesn’t automatically produce an unhealthy baby. What may be more influential is certain aspects of our lifestyles and environment.


Nutritious food keeps your own energy levels high and can reduce the risk of  miscarriage and, during pregnancy, pre-eclampsia and poor fetal growth. There is also increasingly strong evidence that what women eat before and during pregnancy provides the blueprint for their children’s long-term health.

Several studies show that the miscarriage rate goes up when women are not adequately nourished. Equally there is mounting evidence that hypertension, coronary heart disease, thyroid dysfunction, cancer, diabetes, asthma, arthritis and even Alzheimer’s disease are all programmed into a baby while still in the womb. What determines the programming is maternal nutrition.

A diet rich in whole foods is a must. If you are hoping to conceive or pregnant it’s a good time to take an inventory of what you eat and make sure every bite is giving you all the nutrition you need. Switching to organic food where you can will ensure you are not taking in pesticide residues that could harm your baby.

Paying attention to adequate intake of healthy fats is also important. Recent research suggests that pregnant women may have increased needs for omega 3 fatty acids, which are necessary for fetal growth, brain development, learning, and behaviour. It can also help prevent baby blues after the baby is born.

Among the most common nutritional imbalances which affect fertility are high levels of copper and low levels of zinc and magnesium.

Foresight offers individually tailored diet and supplement plans as well as access to hair analysis to detect nutritional deficiencies. It can be a bit pricey, reflecting the individual nature of the programme and its 30 plus years of experience and impressive research to show that, among mothers who follow their plan, the number of low birth weight babies and those with other health problems is a fraction of the national average.

However, today many independent nutritionists also devise individual preconceptual nutrition plans, at less cost, and can also claim impressive results.


Stress, whether work-related or from other areas in your life,  depletes the body of essential nutrients – especially B-vitamins. Mothers who are under lots of stress tend to have babies who are smaller and less active in the womb. Not all stresses can be dealt with easily, but it’s important to do what you can.

If you are very busy or have a very stressful life, it is particularly important that you give your body a regular opportunity to repair some of the damage caused by stress.  Yoga is a good way to address this.

Yoga, can help you remain supple without putting undue strain on your changing body. But many yoga classes also include a period of meditation and relaxation. During this time the body does essential repair work. The heart rate slows, breathing becomes more efficient at releasing toxins from the body and blood sugar levels even out.

Women who are prone to pregnancy related hypertension take note. Researchers have found that the controlled breathing used during yoga meditations can lower blood pressure more quickly and significantly than listening to music or to recordings of natural sounds.


In traditional Chinese medicine, difficulty conceiving is seen as a sign of stagnation and cold in the body. TCM practitioners who specialise in preconceptual care say this is not the kind of ‘cold’ that result from not wearing a coat in winter, but goes much deeper. Stress is a major factor, but it’s not just emotional stress.

A poor diet, for instance, one with an excess of ‘cold’ foods, such as raw fruits and vegetables can drain heat from the body, as can exposure to environmental toxins. Acupuncture is one way of putting heat back into the body though treatment can be much more difficult if this cold and stagnation has turned into physical symptoms such as fibroids, polycystic ovaries or blocked fallopian tubes.


Many practitioners recommend a preconceptual detox programme to rid the body of toxins which can interfere with proper hormonal function. Once the body is cleaned up, herbs known to re-balance the female hormonal function such as motherwort, agnus castus, dong quai, red raspberry and black cohosh can be used. Traditional Chinese herbs can also be used, either alone or in conjunction with acupuncture to get body energy moving and remove stagnation in the reproductive organs.

While herbal medicine cannot be relied upon to unblock fallopian tubes, where the problem lies in anovulatory cycles, polycystic ovaries, it can be surprisingly effective.

Some vaginal infections such as candida, trichomonas and bacterial vaginosis can be difficult to shift with herbs. Even if you do end up having to use conventional medications, herbs such as a broad spectrum echinacea tincture containing Echincea purpurea and Echinacea angustolfolia, may speed the healing process.

Cleaning up your environment

Every toxin you are exposed also reaches your baby. Evidence suggests that occupational exposures are particularity tricky. Women who work with organic solvents – a group that includes artists, graphic designers, laboratory technicians, veterinary technicians, cleaners, factory workers and office workers and chemists – have a greatly increased risk of children with behavioural problems as well as a higher risk of both miscarriage and of giving birth to premature, low birthweight or damaged babies.

These kinds of volatile organic solvents are not restricted to the workplace, however. They are also common in the home for instance in air fresheners, deodorants, furniture polishes and hair sprays.

In the UK the Children of the 90’s survey, which has been ongoing for more than 20 years, found that frequent use of air fresheners and aerosols during pregnancy and early childhood was associated with higher levels of diarrhoea, earache and other symptoms in infants, as well as headaches and depression in mothers. A recent EU report found that hormone disrupters in many household products were linked with infertility as well as cancer.

If you are hoping to get conceive or are pregnant now is a good time to clean up those parts of your environment that you can. See our related articles: How to reduce your child’s exposure to toxins at home and A cleaner, greener home – without chemicals

Is It a Risk?

There are certain issues upon which medical science and the media never seem to settle, but common sense should tell anyone that deliberately consuming stimulants or depressants or other type of toxins during pregnancy is generally not a good idea. Pregnancy lasts just 9 months; the effects of taking in toxins that are easily avoided can last much longer.

Alcohol. Binge drinking and chronic alcoholism can deplete your body of nutrients and interfere with normal hormonal function. Once pregnant it can stop your baby developing properly. The Department of Health recommends that pregnant women, or women trying for a baby, should avoid alcohol altogether.

If they do choose to drink, to minimise risk to the baby, the government’s advice is to not have more than one to two units of alcohol once or twice a week, and not to get drunk.

The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) additionally advises that the risks of miscarriage in the first three months of pregnancy mean that it is particularly important for women not to drink alcohol at all during that period.Nevertheless, many women still prefer to avoid alcohol while trying to conceive and during the first trimester when the baby is developing.

Smoking can poison your body with carcinogenic nicotine and the toxic metal cadmium. Once pregnant it decreases the flow of blood and oxygen to the placenta and reduces the availability of essential amino acids necessary for proper growth. Smokers are also nearly twice as likely as non-smokers to miscarry and are also at a significantly higher risk of giving birth to a baby with cleft palate or lip. Babies of smokers are also more likely to have chronic breathing problems.

The stop smoking group ASH produces a useful information sheet  on the effects of smoking on fertility in both men and women.

Coffee. The overwhelming amount medical evidence suggests that consuming large amounts of coffee daily raises the risk of miscarriage.

NICE recommends no more than 300mg of caffeine a day for pregnant women. The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) recommends just 200mg daily throughout pregnancy but also recommends complete abstention in the first three months.

More than 200mg of caffeine a day has been shown to double the risk of miscarriage. But it’s not just the caffeine that’s a problem.  When doctors in the USA compared blood samples of women who had just miscarried to those of pregnant women they found that levels of a substance called paraxanthine – a chemical found in coffee – were higher in the miscarriage group. What isn’t known is whether the risk is higher in some women than in others.

Preventing problems

Pregnancy is a state of health, and the vast majority of women do not experience any problems at all. But occasionally problems do crop up. Even here lifestyle and diet can help.

Pre-eclampsia.  Restricting salt and protein is now considered an out-moded approach to treating pre-eclampsia. But some other interventions may help. Although results of studies into antioxidant supplements and pre-eclampsia are mixed they do suggest that that pre-eclampsia has a metabolic origin which can be addressed with good food (as recommended in the Brewer Diet) and where necessary supplements. New studies suggest that dietary vitamin C levels are influential; women with pre-eclampsia were found to be significantly more likely to have low dietary intake or blood concentrations of vitamin C, or both, than were the healthy women. Low selenium status is associated with higher incidence of pre-eclampsia.

Supplements like calcium may help reduce the severity of symptoms. A study giving calcium supplementation in women with low-calcium diets found no change in pre-eclampsia rates but did find a decrease in the rate of severe pre-eclamptic complications.

Neural tube defects. Britain has a higher rate of neural tube defects than many other countries and the most useful nutrient to lower the risk is still folic acid. Many women are deficient in this nutrient even before they become pregnant – for instance being on the pill can deplete stores of folic acid. Although there is strong evidence that the origins NTDs are more complex than simple vitamin deficiency, taking 400ug of folic acid daily (preferably as part of a B-complex supplement) before you conceive and up to two months after conception has been shown to reduce the occurrence of NTDs.