Trying to conceive: 10 things to do before getting pregnant
Ready to lay the groundwork for trying for a baby? Here are 10 ways you can prepare for conception – and a few things you can do to pass the time while you wait. Even before you’re actively trying to conceive, there are plenty of things you can do to get your body, your mind and even your home into optimum condition. Pre-pregnancy prep starts here…
What to do before you start trying to conceive
How long should I wait between pregnancies?
A study released this year has shown that the ideal gap between giving birth and getting pregnant again is 12 to 18 months. This is six months sooner than the current World Health Organisation's official guidelines of 18 to 24 months.
Researchers have found that women do not need to wait until 18-24 months after having a baby before getting pregnant and giving birth again, and that 12-18 months is a sufficient amount of time.
The World Health Organisation's official guidelines recommend women wait a year and a half to two years before trying to conceive again, but the recent study has shown that the health risks for women who conceive after just 12-18 months are no greater than those who conceive after 18-24 months.
It remains the case, however, that pregnancies following a gap of less than 12 months do involve the risk of premature births, smaller babies, and infant and mother mortality.
The researchers leading the study, which looked at nearly 150,000 births, said the findings will hopefully be “reassuring” for older women who are planning their families.
1. Have a pre-conception check up
It’s by no means a must, but a pre-conception check-up is a good place to start if you’re thinking of trying to get pregnant. They can be particularly helpful if you have an existing medical condition about which you’re concerned – diabetes, epilepsy or mental health issues, for example – or if you’re on long-term medication for any reason.
GPs in the UK don’t offer these appointments as a matter of course, so sometimes a practice nurse or midwife will take the appointment rather than a GP. They’ll usually run through your reproductive health with you (previous pregnancies, smear test results and your menstrual cycle) as well as your general health.
Do you know when you're ovulating?Try our ovulation calculator
People in certain ethnic groups may be offered tests for conditions such as sickle cell anaemia or thalassaemia, and if you’re aware of any genetic disorders in your or your partner’s family, that can be discussed, too. You might also be offered a rubella immunity test as immunity can diminish over time. Expect a general chat about lifestyle issues such as diet and exercise as well.
While many women don’t worry about seeing their GP until they know they are pregnant, a pre-conception appointment can be a good chance to iron out any concerns and address any issues that, once you’re pregnant, you might have to put up with for a while. Most importantly, though, it’ll give you a warm, smug glow to know you’ve got all the health boxes ticked well in advance.
2. Get a sexual health check
If you’ve ever had unprotected sex, now’s a good time to get checked over to make sure that all is in working order. Get your partner to have their sexual health checked out while you’re at it, so you know you’re both embarking on the TTC journey with a clean bill of health.
A sexual health check can be done by your GP, though they may refer you to a GUM clinic. Generally, they’ll test for HIV, chlamydia, hepatitis B and syphilis; all of these can be passed on to a baby during pregnancy and/or birth, and some may affect your fertility, too.
Chlamydia in particular is often completely symptomless but can cause damage to the fallopian tubes, making it hard to conceive, and has been linked to miscarriage, premature labour and stillbirth – so it’s definitely worth the hassle of a test now, if there’s a chance you could be infected. A simple course of medication usually clears it up.
While you’re having your downstairs thoroughly investigated, it’s also worth ensuring you’ve had a smear test before trying to conceive, just to make sure there’s nothing that may require treatment of a sort that a pregnancy would preclude. Plus, it’s always nice to have a bit of a spring clean, isn’t it?
When you're ready to start trying for a baby
3. Stop taking contraception
It goes without saying that, if you’re thinking about getting pregnant, you’re going to have to stop using contraception at some point – but it might be worth doing so a bit earlier than planned if you use hormonal contraception such as the coil, pill or implant, and moving to a barrier method, such as condoms, for the interim.
While you can get pregnant immediately after coming off the pill or having the implant or coil removed, it’s worth having a few contraceptive-free months before you begin trying. You might notice changes, such as heavier periods, skin breakouts and mood swings; you may lose a few pounds or put them on. But the key benefit is that you’ll be able to get to grips with your natural cycle, so that when the time comes, you’ll be more aware of when you ovulate. Basically, everything goes back to the way it was before you began taking the contraception.
On the plus side, for many women who have been on the pill most of their adult lives, there’s a sort of thrilling freedom in going contraceptive commando for a while.
4. Start charting
Charting your basal body temperature (BBT) isn’t necessary but it is a good way to get to know your body better and work out when the most fertile times of your cycle are, and therefore the best times to do the deed to increase your chances of conception. All you need is a thermometer and a notebook (and clean hands!).
Around the time of ovulation, your body’s temperature on waking raises by 0.25°C to 0.5°C. If you take your temperature first thing every morning, you’ll be able to plot this on a graph and work out at what point in your cycle you ovulate. Your temperature doesn’t rise until just after you ovulate, though it often dips slightly just before, so once you’ve spotted the peak, it’s almost too late to act on it if you’re actively trying to get pregnant.
Starting to chart a few months before you begin trying will allow you to get a good picture of when in your cycle you’re ovulating and the length of your luteal phase (the days between ovulation and the end of your cycle). The best way to get a clear picture of when you ovulate is to chart your cervical mucus alongside your BBT. Roll your sleeves up – this does mean what you think it means.
If you have a look at your cervical mucus, for most of the month it’s sticky or a bit non-existent. Around your most fertile few days, however, it becomes clearer and stretchy – about the consistency of egg whites. Make a note of when these days are. They should tally up with when you see your temperature spike, giving you a clear picture of when O-Day falls. All useful information for when you’re actively trying.
5. Have the chat(s) with your partner
Becoming a parent will one day bring up a whole raft of issues for you and your partner to potentially disagree on (made all the easier by the fact that at least one of you will be hormonal and both of you sleep deprived). Use this time pre-trying for a baby to get those big discussions had while there’s not yet a ‘real’ baby to disagree over, and emotions are therefore not running quite so high and tempers aren’t quite as short.
- How many children would you each ideally like to have?
- If getting pregnant doesn’t come easily, would you go down the assisted conception route? How about adoption?
- Once you’re pregnant, how will you give the good news to the grandparents?
- Who’s going to be at the birth?
- Will you give birth at home or in hospital?
Then there’s the not undaunting prospect of an actual, real baby to contend with.
- How do you plan to carve up the night-time wakes?
- Who’s going to take maternity or paternity leave? And how long for?
- What are your beliefs on discipline? Television? Religion? Tacky TV characters on T-shirts? The perfect PTA fete cake recipe?… Not to mention the biggie – naming the child.
Ever wondered how couples end up with a newborn it takes them six weeks to name? That’s a couple that didn’t have the Scheherazade versus Sharon baby name discussion early doors. Think on.
When you're trying to get pregnant
6. Start some new good habits
We’re talking ‘diet and exercise’ essentially. Look up your BMI and check you’re in the right sort of area – ideally between 18 and 25.
If you’re underweight you might want to try and put a few pounds on to make trying to conceive easier. Being overweight can also make conceiving more tricky and it’s more likely you’ll run into complications like high blood pressure and diabetes during pregnancy.
Don’t panic if you find you’re pregnant and are heavier than you’d hoped. Plenty of women who are overweight have babies with no trouble at all – it’s all about attaining optimum conditions if possible. Plus it’s a good chance to make all those dietary changes you’ve been promising yourself you’ll make for years.
So, what should be in your pre-conception diet? As well as taking a good daily prenatal supplement (for three months before you start trying, ideally), you can try and boost fertility with some saintly and smug superfoods:
- Folate protects ovarian function – in breakfast cereal, kale and other green leafy veg. The NHS also recommends you take folic acid whilst trying to conceive.
- Zinc improves sperm quality – get your partner to scoff shellfish to increase his zinc levels.
- Iron is thought to improve egg health – try a few handfuls of pumpkin seeds, red meat and beans and pulses.
- Vitamin B12 helps with the implantation of the fertilised egg – clams are your friend here.
- Omega three fatty acids help regulate hormones. Chia seeds are high in these, but if they sound like a superfood step too far for you, have a good old-fashioned banana, which contains plenty of hormone-regulating vitamin B6.
Now’s the perfect time to take up an exercise you can continue into pregnancy, too. Anything you can do to tone up and increase fitness levels pre-pregnancy is going to benefit you later on.
Swimming is brilliant because the water supports your weight so you’ll be able to carry on, late into pregnancy when you’re more Moby Dick than Michael Phelps. Yoga and pilates are good for core strength, relaxation and strengthening your pelvic floor. But most exercise is fine in pregnancy as long as it’s something your body is used to and you don’t push yourself too hard. Now is probably not the time to take up show jumping or wrestling, however.
7. And bin bad habits (or just rein them in a bit… or at least plan to)
There’s no getting around it, if you’re thinking of having a baby you’re looking down the barrel of a lot less fun – it’s a lot more fun, too, but not of the dancing-on-tables-necking-Jaegerbombs variety (not until your baby’s sleeping through the night anyway).
Smoking is obviously a no-no in pregnancy but you’d be well advised to give it up before you get to that stage. Firstly, because there’s nothing like nicotine withdrawal to make the stressful early days of pregnancy feel even worse – but more immediately, because stopping smoking significantly improves fertility in men (it can affect sperm count) as well as women.
If you need any more encouragement, remember packing in the fags will save you a fortune, too (almost as much as a baby is going to start costing you, so enjoy the temporary financial flush now). If possible, giving up smoking at least three to four months before getting pregnant is ideal.
The official guidelines on drinking state that if you’re trying for a baby and there’s a chance you could be pregnant then you shouldn’t drink and men should stick to no more than 14 units of alcohol a week. This does not translate to ‘Drink like it’s going out of fashion until you spot the blue line on a pregnancy test’ but equally, there’s no need to cut out alcohol pre-conception and certainly not in the planning stages. Cutting down a bit is a good idea, though, as regularly exceeding your daily alcohol limit can damage fertility in both men and women.
The other bonus of cutting back is you’re less likely to be outed publicly when you do get pregnant. If you’re known for being the office lush, it will be easier to hide the fact that you’ve stopped boozing if everyone knows you’ve been on a health kick for a while and don’t drink like a fish ALL the time, rather than everyone realising you’re obviously pregnant the very first time you order a fizzy water at the bar.
Before having a baby
8. Start saving
The average cost of raising a child to 21 has exceeded £230,000 recently, so anything you can put aside now will make life easier when the purse strings are tighter. Start making regular savings, whether it’s for maternity leave, baby gear, or an account for a university/first home fund.
Whatever you can save now, it will make a difference, even if it just sees you through nappies for the first six months. Plus it’s good practice learning to live on a bit less than you’re used to.
While you’re at it, try and make a rough calculation of how much your maternity/paternity leave would be, which will give you an idea of how long you can afford to be off work. If it’s really important to you that you have a whole year off, for example, you can make a savings plan based around that aim.
9. Go out!
Ask any parent what they miss most about their pre-baby days and going out is often at the top of the list. Whether it’s just nipping out for a beer before dinner or going ‘out out’, make it your mission to make the most of it all while you have the time and money still available. These are the ones that top the ‘most missed’ lists most often:
- Going to the cinema
- Posh restaurants (with no kids’ menus)
- Long Sunday brunches with the papers
- Spur-of-the-moment drinks after work – no rushing back for the nursery pick-up
- Weekend city breaks
- Holidays anywhere in the world you’d rather not drag a child to
Make it your mission to make the most of the opportunities now so you can look back fondly on your wilder child-free days some dark afternoon when you’re pureeing a trio of root veg while attached to a breast pump.
10. Stay in!
There’s plenty to recommend stopping at home, too.
First and foremost – your bed. Bank as much shut-eye as you can. Everyone tells you to take naps when you’re pregnant but no one warns you of the cruelty that is pregnancy insomnia. And even if you’re lucky and insomnia doesn’t hit, you’ll have to contend with nights broken up by a dozen trips to the loo, or spent tossing and turning because you just can’t get comfy.
Pre-TTC is the time to really enjoy sleep as you have known it until now. Getting a solid and sensible seven to eight hours a night is optimum for your health, and is even thought to improve fertility.
Of course, there are plenty of more active ways you can spend a few hours in bed, too. There’s something special about no-pressure sex that it’s hard to recapture once lost. If you’re going to be shagging with intent in a few months time, make a time for utterly frivolous sex now. After all, practice makes perfect!
Practice does also make babies, however, so if you’ve stopped taking the pill, make sure you’re using other methods of contraception unless you want all your plans brought suddenly and inexorably forward.
If you can drag yourself from your bed, now is also a good opportunity to get your house not ‘baby ready’ but perfect for you. Once you’re a family, you’re going to be spending a lot of time in it after all, so now is your chance to make sure you don’t spend the first six months as a mum sitting on the sofa, staring at living room walls that you hate.
Stripping the bathroom ceiling is not going to be your priority in your early days as a parent or during pregnancy. Get your nest just how you want it and then sit back and admire your un-crayoned-on walls, your stain-free sofa and your floors unblemished by the wheels of ride-on toys. Make a mental picture of this idyll that you can conjure up at will through the distinctly more messy days ahead.