Women’s health: A case for preconception care

by Sabriya Dennis
U.S. Army Public Health Command

Women’s Health Month provides an opportunity for women to focus on making healthy lifestyle choices. Having a healthy lifestyle is important for women who plan to get pregnant and have a baby.

Approximately 50 percent of all pregnancies are unplanned. Women with unplanned pregnancies are at increased risk of delivering premature and low birth-weight babies.

Women who are unaware of their pregnancy may engage in unhealthy behaviors such as smoking, alcohol use or drug use that place the baby at risk and hinder development.

Other health related issues such as poor nutrition, low physical activity and untreated sexually transmitted infections add to the risk of poor birth outcomes.
Preconception health can help decrease pregnancy complications and decrease a child’s chances of future health and developmental problems.

Preconception Care vs. Prenatal Care
On average, most women do not discover that they are pregnant until after they are at least 4 to 6 weeks along and do not receive prenatal care until after this point.

Unfortunately by this time, their babies have already passed critical developmental milestones (such as neural tube development) and are most susceptible to birth defects (such as spina bifida).

Unlike prenatal care, which is received during pregnancy, preconception care is preventive, and measures can be taken before women become pregnant. These actions help minimize risk of birth complications and defects. In general, preconception care is the practice of good health habits and living a healthier lifestyle regardless of a woman’s desire to have children. The following items are recommended preconception health practices for women.

Important Actions to Improve Women’s Preconception Health
• Take 400 micrograms of folic acid per day for at least three months before becoming pregnant .

• Stop smoking and drinking alcohol.

• Avoid exposures to toxic substances or potentially infectious materials (such as chemicals or cat and rodent feces) at work or at home.

• Talk to a doctor about any over-the-counter and prescribed medications including vitamins, and dietary or herbal supplements.

• Seek treatment for all medical conditions.

• Make sure all medical conditions are under control .

• Update rubella vaccinations to prevent congenital rubella syndrome.

• Consult a doctor regarding family health history.

• Reduce stress where possible.

Preconception Health and Men:
Preconception health is just as important for men as it is for women. Men should consider the following to ensure that they are in good preconception health:

• Get screened and treated for sexually transmitted infections.

• Quit smoking and/or drug use.

• Limit alcohol use.

• Reduce stress where possible.

• Improve nutrition.

• Consult a doctor about health status and family health history. 

• If one works with toxic chemicals, be careful not to expose women to them; keep and wash clothes separately.

Planning is key to ensuring good preconception health. If a person is not ready to begin a family all contraceptive options should be considered to prevent or delay pregnancy.

For more information on preconception health, visit:

• U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Office on Women’s Health, www.womenshealth.gov/pregnancy/before-you-get-pregnant/preconception-health.cfm

• American Pregnancy Association, www.americanpregnancy.org

• Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/preconception/QandA.htm