The early stage of pregnancy, the first two to eight weeks after conception, is a critical time for fetal development—when a baby’s facial features, brain, spinal column, heart and kidneys begin to form.


“Because you may not realize you’re pregnant until three weeks or more after conception, your health status before pregnancy is key,” said Paul Redman, M.D., OB-GYN at Houston Methodist Baytown Hospital. “Caring for yourself before you conceive can help you avoid complications like preeclampsia (high blood pressure), gestational diabetes and preterm delivery, and reduce your chances for having a baby with birth defects.”


The pathway to a healthy baby begins with a healthy mom, and the journey starts long before a positive pregnancy test. If you’re thinking about having a baby, Redman offers suggestions to help ensure good health for both you and your future little one.


Redman says women should begin their pregnancy journey by visiting their doctor for a preconception visit. This checkup includes a complete physical exam and blood tests to look for infections and your immunity to certain diseases like rubella and chickenpox.


“Your doctor will update your vaccinations and discuss any medical issues, your medications, family history, body weight, fitness level and lifestyle,” Redman said. “It’s a good idea to schedule a trip to your dentist now to have any needed X-rays or repair work done.”


Eating a well-balanced diet that includes a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products and protein-rich foods like lean meats and fish is very important. Starting your pregnancy at a healthy weight can reduce your risk for complications like preeclampsia, gestational diabetes or a difficult delivery. Cut back on caffeine by limiting or avoiding coffee, tea, sodas, chocolate and certain medications.


Studies show that women who don’t get enough folic acid, a B vitamin, are more likely to have babies with neural tube defects, such as spina bifida or anencephaly.


“Because the neural tube, which becomes your baby’s spinal cord and brain, forms within the first three weeks of pregnancy, it’s critical you get enough folic acid before you conceive,” Redman said. “Take a daily supplement or a multivitamin with 400 micrograms of folic acid.”


When pregnant, women should get at least 30 minutes of exercise on most, if not all, days of the week. Being active before you conceive will help you improve your fitness, get down to a healthy weight, reduce stress, and gain strength and balance. Continuing to exercise during your pregnancy can reduce your chances for developing preeclampsia and gestational diabetes. It can help ease constipation, varicose veins, backaches and fatigue.


Redman says quitting bad habits like smoking, drinking alcohol or abusing drugs, is essential. They can cause miscarriage, premature birth, infant death, birth defects, and growth and learning problems. Ask your doctor about programs to help you quit.


If you’re thinking about having a baby, make the effort now to seek preconception care and improve your lifestyle to give your child his or her best start.


To schedule an appointment with a Houston Methodist Baytown Hospital OB-GYN, call 281.420.5760. To schedule a tour of the Houston Methodist Childbirth Center at Baytown, call 281.420.8625.