Pregnancy dos and don'ts

Paint tin and brushThere are some seriously aggravating aspects to being pregnant (morning sickness, constipation, tiredness etc) but one of the more irksome is the seemingly endlessly changing list of things you're told you can and can't do.

But before you lock yourself away for the next nine months to avoid any possible risk, remember that unborn babies are remarkably tenacious - they must be or the human race would long since have dwindled into extinction.

Common sense is the best yardstick and, in the whole span of parenting years ahead, giving up or avoiding a few things for nine months isn't that long (it just may feel like it).

Drinking alcohol during pregnancy

Lack of agreement about safe alcohol limits during pregnancy has led to government advice that says women shouldn't drink any alcohol during pregnancy and, if they must drink, shouldn't do so in the first three months. (Hands up who knew they were pregnant as soon as sperm met egg?)

The Royal College of Obstretricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) says there's no evidence a couple of units once or twice a week do any harm to the baby, but can't categorically rule out any risk.

Drinking during pregnancy is potentially dangerous because the alcohol crosses the placenta and your baby's developing liver can't process it as fast as your body can.

Too much alcohol raises your risk of miscarriage and your baby's chance of having a low birthweight. It can also lead to foetal alcohol spectrum disorder, which causes serious health problems for your baby, such as heart defects and behavioural disorders.

Latest advice about avoiding chemicals

The RCOG says pregnant women should 'play safe' and avoid products and foods that may contain chemicals, such as bisphenol A and phthalates, that could harm their unborn baby.

To do so, it recommends you avoid:

• Food in plastic containers and cans
• New cars
• Non-stick frying pans
• New furniture
• Air fresheners
• Paint fumes
• Pesticides and insect sprays

And you should minimise your exposure to toiletries, such as shower gel and sunscreen, which could theoretically pose a chemical risk. In short, assume there may be a risk, even if it may be minimal or eventually unfounded.

Breast Cancer UK has information on how to avoid potentially dangerous chemicals and carcinogens.

If you're past the first three months, current government advice is that you should limit alcohol consumption to one or two units once or twice a week.

What Mumsnetters say about drinking during pregnancy

  • I drank my usual three or four glasses a day for the first 10 weeks of pregnancy - I had no idea I was pregnant. Due to my age I thought it was the start of the menopause. Lindy
  • I came back from a long holiday to find out I was five weeks pregnant. Not only had I drunk alcohol every single night but I was also taking malaria tablets. In the end there was no harm to the baby, but I did worry up to the day he was born. Whymummy
  • I drank a glass of wine an evening in the second and third semesters of my pregnancy. I think it has a lot to do with how well your body processes alcohol and my body has a lot of experience and seems to process it rather well! Batters
  • I used to make the most of that one drink on a night out. I told my partner if I could only have one, it had to be a good one - normally a lovely glass of chilled champagne. Claireandrich
  • I probably believe it's better to abstain completely, but in the scheme of things (ie life is not a risk-free activity) I think small amounts of alcohol are unlikely to have a measurable effect. Elliott

Smoking and taking drugs during pregnancy

This is one area where there's no disagreement - cigarettes and street drugs not good for your baby (or you).

Cigarettes increase the risk of babies having a low birth weight, being born prematurely and/or with respiratory problems, and maternal smoking is linked to miscarriage and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).

For some women who smoke (and certainly those who don't), pregnancy is the ultimate aversion therapy - one whiff of tobacco and they feel sick.

But for others it can be more of a struggle. Women aren't incubators, and the ups and downs of normal life don't stop because you're pregnant. But, basically, every cigarette you don't smoke is good news for your baby.

If you're using skunk, ecstasy, ketamine, cocaine or other street drugs, then so is your baby because drugs cross the placenta. This increases the risk of pregnancy complications and foetal abnormalities.

Don't worry about what you've done in the past, just concentrate on stopping in the present.

What Mumsnetters say about smoking during pregnancy

  • My main problem is my temper - I'm sure it's the hormones plus lack of alcohol and nicotine but I'm a bit frazzled. The NHS guy's advice was to have a big glass of water whenever I feel stressed. He said water is very calming and also obviously good for you. Jessi
  • Every time you manage to go without a cigarette you should praise yourself, and every time you give in at least know that you tried. I took up chewing gum – I'm totally obsessed with it, keep it in pockets, in my bag, all over the house. Music
  • Maybe seeing it from your baby's point of view and wanting to be around to see your baby grow up will give you the incentive to kick the habit. Baaba 

Eating safely during pregnancy

Some (delicious) smelly blue cheeses, pâté (including vegetable), raw eggs, raw or undercooked meat, liver, fish liver oils, shark, swordfish and marlin, raw shellfish and undercooked ready meals are out.

But cooked shellfish, live (bio) yoghurt, cream, spicy food, mayonnaise and ice cream (as long as they don't contain raw egg), honey and a long list of lovely cheeses such as ricotta, parmesan, mozzarella, cheddar and double Gloucester, are all in. (Oh, and tuna and oily fish is OK twice a week.)

Basically, you're trying to avoid foods containing bacteria that cause infections and might (note, might) lead to miscarriage, stillbirth or infection in your newborn.

Not eating fish such as marlin is to avoid digesting high levels of mercury, which can harm a baby's developing nervous system, and shunning shellfish is to avoid possible food poisoning.

Otherwise, just observe normal kitchen hygiene:

  • Wash fruit and veg
  • Store meat, fish and dairy separately and at the correct temperature
  • Wash your hands after handling raw food, particularly meat

Also on your 'do' list is eat plenty of starchy foods (wholegrains, pasta, rice, pulses, fruit and vegetables) for the usual reasons but also to prevent, or at least limit, constipation (a bane of pregnancy).

You need plenty of calcium (milk, cheese, yoghurt), protein (lean meat, chicken and fish, eggs and pulses) and iron (fortified cereals, red meat, pulses, bread, green veg).

What Mumsnetters say about eating safely in pregnancy

  • I was really unknowingly evil and ate about a million raw oysters when about five months pregnant with my boys and on holiday in France. I'd read the dos and don'ts religiously, but somehow missed the shellfish embargo. Good grief but they were tasty though! ScummyMummy
  • Apparently, a pregnant woman has a far higher chance of becoming ill from listeriosis than a non-pregnant person. Listeriosis can cause miscarriage, premature labour and stillbirth. But just because you eat ripened soft cheeses it doesn't mean you WILL get listeriosis. Oakmaiden
  • You can eat shellfish safely if it's thoroughly cooked and piping hot all the way through. The same goes for everything really. No piping hot food can contain listeria. And hard cheeses are all safe, too. Aloha 

How much caffeine is safe?

Current research indicates that high levels of caffeine can result in miscarriage or low birth weight, so government health advice is not to exceed 200mg of caffeine a day.

Basically, if you eat a bar of plain chocolate and drink one mug of filter coffee a day, or if you drink two mugs of tea and a can of cola, you'll have reached the 200mg limit.

Can I dye my hair?

One pregnancy plus is that many women find their hair gets thicker (we won't dwell on it falling out again after the baby's born). It's one aspect of your appearance you still have some control over (unlike your boobs and waistline)

It's fine to colour your hair during pregnancy. Only enormous doses of the chemicals used in semi-permanent and permanent hair dyes would cause your baby harm.

If you're doing it yourself at home, wear gloves and open a window for ventilation. Because your hormones are all over the place, you might be more susceptible to an allergic reaction from a dye, so do a patch test 24 hours before application.

Can I clean the cat litter?

Cleaning the cat litter can't figure high on many women's 'chores I enjoy' list, so pregnancy is a good excuse to get out of it. Cat faeces can carry a parasite that causes toxoplasmosis, an infection that isn't serious for you but can be for your baby. (It's also carried by some birds and other animals, and found in undercooked meats.) Cats get it by eating dirt and raw meat (usually rodents). 

Your odds of contracting it are low, and if you've had it, you can't get it again. But to err on the safe side, if your moggy is an outside prowler, get someone else to clean the cat litter. If you have to do it, wear rubber gloves and wash both your hands and the gloves thoroughly afterwards.

If you don't have a cat, but neighbours' moggies regard your garden/children's sand pit as a toilet, wear gloves when you're gardening and handling soil or sand.

Other risky activities during pregnancy

Mumsnetter Zebra has a pretty definitive list:

"Heatstroke in the mother is lethal to the foetus, so be careful when sunbathing. Aerobic exercise is OK if you were doing it pre-pregnancy, you just have to watch for: joint strain, dehydration, sunburn and fatigue. Don't go near ewes about to drop their lambs. Avoid any reptile or bird that might carry salmonella. No to most insect repellents (they contain DEET=diethyl toulamide, which causes birth defects).

"No to many over-the-counter drugs. No to dental x-rays. No to working with lots of specific chemicals found in certain work places. No to painting with paints with high VOC (volatile organic compound) levels.  Also remember that pregnant women should avoid other people with shingles, chickenpox or rubella, unless you know you're immune."

But she adds:

"Having said all that, when I was pregnant, sometimes because I didn't know I was pregnant, I have got drunk, had a dental x-ray, self-applied DEET-containing repellent because I didn't know DEET = diethyl toulamide and worked with ionising radiation. I never bothered with gloves in the garden because I grew up drinking raw cow's milk and chucking cat poop out of sandpits. If I haven't had toxoplasmosis before now, it's not possible for anybody to catch it."

Pregnancy can be trying enough without beating yourself up. None of us can escape exposure to potentially harmful substances, but remember the vast majority of babies are born perfectly healthy.

Our grandmothers and mothers smoked and drank through pregnancy, and doubtless our kids, in turn, will be scandalised by our reckless disregard for their health in utero.

What Mumsnetters say about pregnancy dos and don'ts

  • My take on all of this is moan like mad if you want, as it is a pain in the bum missing out on so many of life's pleasures. But when you have finished moaning, do everything in your power to stay safe in the knowledge that it isn't forever (and chocolate is not on the list). StripyMouse
  • All this makes you realise that once you're pregnant you should stay at home, in bed, in a dark room and not leave it for the full nine months. My view while I was pregnant was to eat and drink what I liked in moderation, as I figured that's what people have done since the beginning of time and before we had doctors who told us what we couldn't do. Meanmum


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Last updated: 14 days ago