What mom eats during pregnancy impacts the health of her growing baby. Nutrients from mom’s meals influence everything from baby’s growth and brain development, through to baby’s food preferences. This means it’s important for mom to learn about the food she’s consuming.
With just a little guidance about what to eat - and what to avoid - complemented with healthy lifestyle choices, mom and baby will both be set up to thrive.
Baby eats what mom eats
A healthy baby starts with a healthy mom. That means pregnancy is the ideal time to focus on eating well.
Good nutrition during pregnancy begins to build the foundations for baby’s long-term health. Without the right nutrients from mom, baby is at risk of developing complications in the womb. Beyond birth, research suggests a link between mom’s nutrition and baby’s increased risk of obesity and other conditions like diabetes later in life. Our appetite pathways start to form before birth, and nutrients baby receives from mom plays a key role in their development.
Pregnancy is also a great time for mom to start developing baby’s food preferences. Baby’s first exposure to flavors through amniotic fluid - what mom eats during pregnancy is what baby first tastes. Baby’s sense of smell also develops during the first trimester, so mom’s diet is an early influence on baby’s food preferences later on in life.
When it comes to choosing the best foods to eat, keep it simple. Eat real foods, the ones from Mother Nature, and limit highly-processed, high-fat, and high-sugar foods.
To help kick-start baby’s healthy choices moms should eat a range of:
- Dairy foods
- Sweet potato
- Broccoli/dark leafy greens
- Lean meat
- Whole grains
- Dried fruit
With these foods, you should be able to help satisfy your food cravings. And the number 1 drink of choice should be water. Staying hydrated supports the health of the placenta and is important for the extra supply of blood needed during pregnancy.
From conception until their second birthday, baby’s brain grows faster than at any other time, reaching 80% of its adult size by age 3. It’s these first 1,000 days that’s referred to as ‘the Window of Opportunity’.
During this time, important lifelong brain functions such as learning, memory, behavior, and eyesight are under development. That makes a varied, nutrient-dense diet essential to build a robust immune system and establish lifelong healthy eating habits.
Mom needs to provide an ongoing supply of nutrients in order for her growing baby to thrive.
- Folic acid is a B vitamin crucial during early pregnancy to lower the risk of neural tube defects such as spina bifida. The neural tube forms in the first 28 days of pregnancy, which then develops into the brain and spinal cord.
- Iron helps carry oxygen around the body, which all cells need to do their job. Iron specifically plays a key role in myelin development, which provides a protective covering around nerve fibres that the cells use to communicate with each other.
- Zinc is a nutrient needed in small amounts each day and is important for baby’s rapidly developing cells.
- Iodine helps make the thyroid hormone, essential for growth and development, and for optimal metabolism. Iodine deficiency during pregnancy can cause brain damage and can affect baby’s cognitive and motor skills.
- Protein is a macronutrient needed to support optimal brain development. Without enough protein, baby has a higher risk of developing brain damage.
Weighing up mom’s weight—both under and over
All moms-to-be will gain weight during pregnancy, but how much weight, and how many extra calories they need will vary from mom to mom.
Body Mass Index is a measure of body based on height and weight. While controversial, it is one way to define weight status:
Healthy/Normal BMI: 18.5-24.9
Overweight BMI: 25-29.9
Obese BMI: 30 or greater
Underweight BMI: less than 18.5
Follow this link to calculate your BMI: https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/educational/lose_wt/BMI/bmicalc.htm
Overweight and obese BMI
Carrying excess weight into pregnancy increases baby’s chance of being larger at birth. Babies born significantly larger than normal may have an increased risk of childhood obesity and metabolic syndrome. These increase their risk of developing conditions like diabetes and heart disease when they’re older.
A higher BMI also increases baby’s risk of developing birth defects. These can be harder to detect during an ultrasound due to mom’s weight and may delay diagnosis and treatment.
Being underweight while pregnant can restrict baby’s growth. Smaller babies have a greater risk of being born early. A low birth weight can also cause long-term cognitive and motor disabilities.
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Healthy eating during pregnancy
Don’t fall for the commonly held myth that once you’re pregnant you’re ‘eating for two’.
Moms do need to eat more calories as baby grows, but these extra calories should come from nutrient-dense foods. Baby grows the most during the third trimester, so depending on mom’s pre-pregnancy weight she may need to eat about 2,400 calories a day.
For most soon-to-be-moms, healthy eating during pregnancy requires a common-sense approach to food. The number of calories mom and baby need increases during pregnancy, however, it’s always quality over quantity. These calories should come from nutrient-dense foods.
Eating a range of vegetables, dairy foods, protein, fruits, healthy fats, and whole grains is usually enough to support adequate weight gain while pregnant.
Folic acid and vitamin D supplements are usually recommended for moms during pregnancy. These nutrients are critical for baby’s growth and development, however, getting enough just from food is hard. Iron and iodine are also super important nutrients so supplements may be recommended. Talk to your healthcare provider about all vitamin, mineral and other supplements you are taking or considering taking.
The importance of gut health during pregnancy is also starting to be better understood. The trillions of microbes that live and function within our gut, called the microbiome, impacts overall health. Baby receives microbes from mom at birth, so having a healthy, diverse microbiome may also benefit baby’s health.
Foods to watch out for
There’s no special pregnancy diet, just lots of nutritious foods to support optimal growth and development. Most foods are safe to eat while pregnant, but there are some that are best avoided due to the risk of food poisoning from bacteria or parasites.
Foods best to avoid during pregnancy include:
- Raw meats
- Raw eggs
- Soft cheeses
- Unpasteurized milk
- Spreads made of puréed or finely chopped liver, meat, fish or game
Tobacco, using drugs, and alcohol all cause problems for a developing baby and aren’t safe during pregnancy. Caffeinated drinks such as coffee, soda, and energy drinks may be harmful to little ones, so it’s recommended to reduce or eliminate caffeine when pregnant.
Keeping food safe
Along with some more obvious changes during pregnancy (who can miss that growing belly!) mom’s immune system also changes to keep baby safe. These same changes also make mom and baby more vulnerable to food-borne bacteria such as Listeria, Salmonella, and E. coli and the parasite Toxoplasma gondii.
Keeping food safe and hygienic is fairly simple:
- Wash all fruit, vegetables, and salad (even if pre-packaged)
- Wash all kitchen surfaces and utensils, especially when handling raw meat, and remember to use a separate meat cutting board
- Cook seafood thoroughly and skip raw seafood
- Say no to unpasteurized juice and cider
- Avoid all raw milk products
- Cook eggs thoroughly, including sauces or foods that contain raw eggs
- Make sure meat and poultry are thoroughly cooked
- Don’t eat unbaked dough
Managing morning sickness
For many moms the nausea associated with morning sickness might last well beyond the mornings! The good news is most women who develop morning sickness will find the symptoms ease after the first trimester. And, rest assured your little one can still thrive even when it’s hard to eat as well as mom would like. At this point, baby still benefits from small amounts of nutrient-dense foods.
Morning sickness affects everyone differently and it can help moms to try a few different ways to manage it and see what works best.
Tips to help ease morning sickness include:
- Avoid going too long between meals as sometimes an empty stomach can make nausea worse
- Try small frequent meals and snacks
- Have a dry cracker or piece of fresh fruit before getting out of bed in the mornings
- Skip the fatty and spicy foods as these can cause more stomach acid to be released and increase nausea
Staying in shape as you change shape
Regular exercise is important and safe during pregnancy for both mom and baby. Moms should talk with their healthcare provider about how much and what type of exercises are best for them if unsure. It’s also good for both physical and mental wellbeing and is a great habit to continue even after baby is born.
Benefits of exercising during pregnancy
Getting the heart rate up 30 minutes a day, or even 20 minutes every 3-4 days:
- Helps to maintain a healthy weight for mom and baby
- Minimizes the risk of an emergency caesarean (c-section)
- Helps mom get back into shape after birth
- Reduces the risk of developing gestational diabetes and high blood pressure
- Helps with a better night’s sleep
- Increases energy
- Improves mood
A healthy pregnancy, supported through good nutrition and lifestyle choices, helps both mom and baby thrive and gives little one’s future health a great head start.
Disclaimer: The information provided is the opinion of Good Feeding, it has not been evaluated by healthcare professionals, and is for educational purposes only. Before starting any new foods or feeding practices, please consult your baby's healthcare professional.