One of the most basic truths about a healthy pregnancy is how closely tied it is to the preconception health of both parents. And that puts the importance of preconception care into sharp focus. But what is preconception care exactly, and where do you get it? Here’s what to understand about preconception care, including what it is, why it matters, and what to do.
- Preconception health describes the health of women and men during their reproductive years.
- Prioritizing preconception health for both partners with specific care can help couples improve their chances of a healthy conception, pregnancy, and baby.
- Ideally, preconception care should begin six months before a couple begins trying for a baby.
- While preconception care is unique to everyone, a preconception checklist may include taking prenatal vitamins, stopping birth control, tracking cycles, exercising and eating well, managing stress, and minimizing bad habits like drinking and smoking.
What is Preconception Care?
Walk down the aisle at your local drugstore, and it seems like preconception care is lumped in with the fertility and pregnancy offerings, most of which are pregnancy tests and emergency contraceptives. Here’s the thing – preconception care should begin way before you’re shopping for tests, because maximizing your health at least six months before you start trying can make an enormous difference on everything to come.
To understand preconception care, let’s back up to preconception health. This is just what it sounds like – the health of women and men during their reproductive years. A couple planning to become pregnant at some point in the future can take steps now to prioritize their health for the best chance of a healthy conception and to protect the health of their future baby.
Here’s the thing – even men and women who aren’t planning on a baby today can benefit from prioritizing preconception health, simply because many of the things that we do to improve our reproductive health are the same things we do to improve our health as a whole.
And preconception health isn’t limited to physical health – it’s technically defined as the medical, behavioral, and social health of both parents-to-be during these reproductive years. That means it looks a little different for everyone, and so does preconception care. For some, it may mean committing to consistent exercise and better nutrition to reach a healthy weight. For others, it could be figuring out how to best manage stress or getting a handle on your cycle after coming off hormonal birth control. So… where to begin? Right this way!
Preconception Care Checklist
For couples planning on a baby, preconception care is all about stacking the deck. And while so much of the fertility equation is largely out of our control, there are things we can do to optimize our health and tune into what matters for the best chance of conception and a healthy pregnancy. Here’s where to start.
Start taking prenatal vitamins
Surprised to see this top our list? Don’t be! Experts recommend that both men and women take high-quality prenatal vitamins at least three months (ideally) before they start trying to conceive. Both partners will benefit from key micronutrients that support the processes driving conception in men and women. What’s more, a steady stream of nutrients as a woman’s eggs mature for fertilization means better egg quality. Plus, starting prenatals early helps build up the nutrients you’ll need once you become pregnant and get busy, you know, growing an entire little person.
Something similar happens on the male side of things. Improving sperm health involves specific nutrients, including methylated folate, selenium, L-Carnitine, and CoQ10, among others. Since a man’s health preconception has a direct effect on his partner’s pregnancy and the health of their baby, a prenatal vitamin specifically formulated for men is an easy way to support and optimize sperm health. Keep in mind that the sperm maturation process takes roughly three months, and the right nutrients can support optimal motility, morphology, and other parameters of sperm health during this process.
Track your period
If you aren’t already tracking your periods, or you’ve just come off a hormonal birth control that had you on an artificial schedule, it’s time to get to know your cycle. Make a point of tracking the number of days in your cycle – i.e. the first day of your period (which is day one of your cycle) and the day your next period begins. Ideally, your cycle length is roughly the same month to month. This will help you figure out your ovulation window.
When you do become pregnant, you'll be asked a zillion times when your last period began. This is how they time your pregnancy and give you a due date, so make sure you’re tracking this stuff!
Prioritize a healthy lifestyle
Trying to become a parent is a big deal, and it could be the motivation you need to really embrace a healthy lifestyle. All of the things that fall into that – eating a nutritious diet, staying hydrated, getting lots of high quality sleep, exercising regularly, and nixing the bad habits – will improve your overall health. And good news – that includes your reproductive health.
Find healthy outlets to manage stress
This falls into the “prioritize a healthy lifestyle” box, but it deserves special attention. Mitigating stress is a big deal, because high levels of stress can temporarily affect your fertility – and not in a good way. It raises cortisol levels, which can mess with your cycle, causing delayed or absent ovulation.
If work, finances, family life, or something else is causing major stress in your life, make a point of finding a healthy outlet – exercise, meditation, yoga, intentional breathing, therapy, whatever works for you.
Enjoy the process
This is an exciting time and you should enjoy the experience, so try not to stress if you don’t see two pink lines immediately. If you’re under 35, experts recommend trying for 12 months before seeing a doctor for a closer look at your fertility. Over 35? Give it six months and see what happens. The point is, these things can take time and you’ll only set yourself up for failure if you start comparing your experience to anyone else’s. Try to enjoy this pre-parenthood stage as much as you can.
Preconception care is all about optimizing your preconception health in preparation for what’s to come. The healthier you and your partner are today, the better the chance you’ll have a healthy conception, pregnancy, and little bundle of joy. And that’s what it’s all about!