Understanding Preconception Health & Why It Matters

Courtesy FreeDigitalPhotos.net/StuartMiles

January is Birth Defects Prevention Month

Normally, I reserve this space for sharing communication issues related to mothers and family. But some discussions need to occur long before we become parents (or while adding to our broods) and one of those is understanding the influence of preconception health on pregnancy. One in five babies die due to birth defects. Here’s my story.

When I became pregnant for the first time, I knew little about “preconception health.” Actually, I’d never even heard the term. I may have mentioned that we wanted to start a family to my doctor and she prescribed prenatal vitamins, but that’s about as far as the discussion went. I naively assumed that pregnancy didn’t begin until you were actually pregnant. Go figure.

I imagined pregnancy as nine blissed-out months of admiring an expanding baby bump, reading “What to Expect..,” decorating the nursery and running out for fried chicken at two in the morning. Birth defects seemed like vague notions that happened to other people. 

Heading into our 20-week appointment, my husband and I eagerly anticipated finding out the gender of our baby. As the ultrasound tech grew increasingly quiet, a persistent whine of fear began to leach into my otherwise cheerful visions of my bouncing baby boy. The tech measured and remeasured the images on the screen. When she excused herself to retrieve my doctor, my husband reached for my hand. That day, we learned that our son suffered from numerous and severe birth defects and wouldn’t survive the pregnancy. He died a few weeks later.

After that appointment in subsequent pregnancies, the ultrasound room became my own private hell–the fuzzy black and white unveiling of everything that can go wrong. Like a thunderclap to my conscience, it suddenly occurred to me why new parents traditionally count their newborn’s fingers and toes.

According to the CDC, one in 33 babies will suffer from a birth defect. Often, as in my case, there’s no rhyme or reason to why things go wrong. And, given that I had a miscarriage a year after we lost our son, having a healthy baby began to seem like a crapshoot.

Timing, genetics, environment, lifestyle and maternal health are pieces of an intricate puzzle that contribute to the development of a healthy baby. While there’s never a guarantee that all the pieces of will fall into place as they should, every small step you make now can up the odds of delivering a healthy baby even if he’s still only a playful figment of your imagination.

If you’re planning to become pregnant or even if you’re not (half of all pregnancies are unplanned, underscoring the importance of taking daily vitamins that include folic acid), read the tips that doctors and maternal health specialists shared with me in my article “Healthy Babies Start with Proper Pregnancy Planning” in the winter issue of Kansas City Baby magazine.

Practice caring for yourself now. Give yourself the gift of a healthy body. Connect with your doctor to find out what you can do to prepare for a healthy pregnancy. Surround yourself with caring friends and strengthen your social network for optimal emotional health. When you do become pregnant, chances are your pregnancy will go off without a hitch, and you’ll celebrate each miraculous milestone.

But if things don’t go according to plan whether during pregnancy or after, know that you aren’t alone. There’s an empathetic, quiet network of women who’ve been there; who’ve struggled, worried and suffered. Don’t be afraid to reach out. We’ll catch you if you fall. 

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