Advice on conceiving and preparing for pregnancy
If you’re trying for a baby there are things you can do to help make sure you have a safe and comfortable pregnancy - and that your child is healthy.
It is important to take regular, moderate exercise so that your body is in good shape for pregnancy and you have plenty of energy and stamina for labour and caring for a baby.
You should also try to follow a healthy, balanced diet by trying to eat:
- plenty of fruit and vegetables (this can include fresh, frozen, tinned, dried produce, or a glass of juice) – aim for at least five portions a day
- plenty of starchy foods, such as bread, pasta, rice and potatoes (choose wholegrain options where you can)
- protein-rich food, such as lean meat, chicken, fish, eggs and pulses (beans and lentils)
- dairy foods such as milk, cheese and yoghurt, which contain calcium
You should try to avoid:
- processed foods and foods that are high in fats and sugar
Eating lots of dark green leafy vegetables (for example cabbage, broccoli, and Brussel sprouts), parsnips, peas and oranges is important around conception and during early pregnancy as they contain folate.
Getting plenty of this B vitamin can help prevent neural tube defects such as spina bifida.
The range of healthy weight is defined by the body mass index (BMI). A healthy weight is a BMI of between 20 and 25.
It can take longer to get pregnant if you are underweight (your BMI is under 19) or you are obese (your BMI is 30 or above).
If you are underweight or overweight and you have irregular or no periods, reaching a healthy weight will help your ovaries to start working again.
If you are overweight, taking part in a group exercise and diet programme gives you a better chance of getting pregnant than trying to lose weight on your own.
Men who have a BMI of 30 or above are likely to have reduced fertility.
How often to have sexual intercourse
To give yourselves the best chance of success, try to have sex every two to three days.
If you are under psychological stress, it can affect your relationship and is likely to reduce your sex drive.
If this means you do not have sex as often as usual, this may also affect you or your partner’s chances of getting pregnant.
Drinking even moderate amounts of alcohol can harm your chances of conceiving. This applies to both men and women, so if you are having trouble conceiving, you should cut out alcohol completely and see if this helps.
In women, alcohol can harm developing babies. The safest approach if you are pregnant, or trying to get pregnant, is to choose not to drink alcohol at all.
For men, your fertility is unlikely to be affected if your alcohol intake is within the recommended limit of 14 units of alcohol per week.
Drinking too much alcohol can affect semen quality.
Smoking also significantly lowers your chances of getting pregnant, increases your chance of miscarriage and, if you continue to smoke during pregnancy, your baby may be harmed.
Medicines and drugs
Some prescription and over-the-counter medicines can interfere with your fertility. Your GP should ask you about any medicines you are taking and offer you advice.
They should also ask you about recreational drugs, such as cannabis, cocaine and anabolic steroids) as these can also interfere with your fertility and damage a developing baby.
If you are on the pill
If your pregnancy is planned and you are on the pill, it’s best to wait three months after stopping before trying to conceive to reduce the risk of miscarriage.
Your doctor can advise on other forms of contraception.
Vitamins and minerals
Your local pharmacist should be able to provide you with a simple multivitamin and mineral supplement suitable for pregnancy.
If you are trying to get pregnant, you should take folic acid tablets (400 micrograms) every day.
Taking folic acid when you are trying for a baby and for the first 12 weeks of pregnancy reduces the risk of having a baby with neural tube defects (where parts of the brain or spinal cord do not form properly), such as spina bifida.
You can get these tablets from a supermarket or pharmacist.
You should also eat foods that contain this important vitamin as well. These include green, leafy vegetables, breakfast cereals and breads with added folic acid.
You will need a bigger dose of folic acid (five milligrams) to be prescribed by your GP if you:
- already have a baby with spina bifida
- have coeliac disease
- have diabetes
- are obese
- take anti-epileptic medicines
Rubella (German measles)
If you’re unsure whether you are immune to rubella, ask your doctor to check your immunity status three months before you plan to conceive.
If you are not immune, you should have a rubella vaccination before you try to become pregnant because infection with rubella can cause serious sight, hearing, heart and brain defects (congenital rubella syndrome) to the baby.
You should avoid pregnancy for one month after your rubella vaccination.
Cervical smear tests
Your GP should ask you when you last had a cervical smear test and what the result was.
If a cervical smear test is due, you should have this test before you try to get pregnant.
At work, some people are exposed to x-rays, pesticides or other things that may affect their fertility.
Your GP should as you about the work that you do and should advise you about any possible risks to your fertility.
Get a general health check
Planning a pregnancy is a good chance for both parents to get a full health check.
If your doctor plans to prescribe you new medications or antibiotics, remind them that you are planning a pregnancy.
If there is a family history of medical conditions on either side, such as cystic fibrosis or diabetes, let your doctor know. You may need genetic counselling with a trained specialist or referral for diabetic specialist preparation to pregnancy.
Some sexually transmitted infections (STIs) can be passed on to your baby during pregnancy, so make sure you have both been treated for any infections before planning to conceive.
If the mother has a medical condition such as diabetes or epilepsy, or is being treated for depression or other mental illness, medications for these will need to be checked before conceiving to make sure they will not affect the baby.
Stress has been shown to have effects on blood pressure, hormones and the menstrual cycle.
If you are trying to conceive or are having problems conceiving, try to eliminate any stressful areas in your daily life.
The best time to get pregnant
You are most likely to conceive if you have sex within a day or so of ovulation. This is usually about 14 days after the first day of your last period.
An egg lives for about 12 to 24 hours after it is released. For you to become pregnant, the egg must be fertilised within this time. Sperm can live for up to seven days inside a woman’s body. So, if you have had sex in the seven days before ovulation, the sperm will have had time to travel up the fallopian tubes to wait for the egg to be released.
Getting pregnant may happen immediately, though for some people the wait will be much longer.
If you are experiencing problems conceiving and you are worried that one of you might be infertile, talk to your doctor, who will organise a test.
Once the results of the tests have been examined, your doctor will suggest a suitable method of treatment.
Some options could include:
- a course of medication to stimulate ovulation
- sperm or egg donation
- intrauterine insemination (IUI)
- in vitro fertilisation (IVF)
Coronavirus (COVID-19) guidance
COVID-19 guidance for pregnant women and information on what is happening in their regional unit can be found on NI Maternity.