Your healthcare provider has an ulterior motive – she wants to talk to you before you get pregnant so that she can help you have the healthiest pregnancy possible.

If you’re like most women, the decision to start a family begins with the notion of stopping any birth control being used and simply trying to conceive a child. But experts know that the status of your health before you get pregnant can affect how you experience pregnancy and birth.

Experts use the term “preconception health” to promote your health before pregnancy so that you have your healthiest and safest pregnancy possible. This visit is typically covered by insurance, and your healthcare provider can also answer questions you may have about conceiving a child, such as understanding when you’re the most fertile in your cycle.

Coming out of this visit, you’ll need to be willing to change any lifestyle habits that could be harmful to you or your baby during pregnancy and work to be your healthy best when you do conceive. This often means achieving a healthy weight, eating a healthy diet, getting regular exercise and ceasing the use of alcohol and tobacco.

Did you know that nearly half of all pregnancies are unplanned? Yet the first 4 to 10 weeks after conception (and typically before you know you’re pregnant) are the most critical time for your developing baby. You’re not even likely to get in to see your healthcare provider before 11 to 12 weeks of pregnancy.

At a preconception health visit, you’re healthcare provider will likely counsel you on any of the following:

Folic acid supplementation: You’ll need to start taking 400 micrograms of this B vitamin to reduce your baby’s risk of being born with serious birth defects involving the brain and spine (like spinal bifida) by up to 70%.

Sexually transmitted infections (STIs): STIs during pregnancy may increase the risk of fetal death, physical and developmental disabilities

Managing a chronic disease: If you suffer from chronic diseases, such as asthma, heart disease, diabetes, multiple sclerosis or epilepsy, it’s important to have these under control as much as possible to reduce the risk of birth defects and complications in your pregnancy.

Recreational drug use: Eliminate completely. Drug use during pregnancy can increase the chance of miscarriage, low birth-weight, premature births, developmental delays and behavioral and learning problems..

Caffeine consumption: More than two cups of coffee a day (or about 300 milligrams of caffeine) is linked to an increased risk of miscarriage. Not all coffees are equal, either, and a “small” or “tall” can vary from the standard 6 ounces to more than 16 ounces.

Prescription medications you’re taking: Many prescription drugs, and even some over-the-counter medications, can cause birth defects. You’ll need to discuss how you may want to discontinue or choose other options for any medications you’re taking.

Accutane use: This powerful acne drug can cause abnormalities in your growing fetus, which is why using contraception with this drug is always essential. During your preconception care visit, you’ll be able to discuss alternative medications with your provider for acne control before and during pregnancy.

Eliminating alcohol and tobacco: Controlling binge and/or frequent drinking before pregnancy begins prevents fetal alcohol syndrome and other related birth defects. And it’s critical to stop smoking – every cigarette harms your baby through the chemicals that cross the placenta into your womb, and smoking also restricts oxygen to your baby. Even if you can’t quit, cutting back can be helpful and your healthcare provider can give you aids and advice on stopping smoking during pregnancy, if not for good.

Weight control: Reaching a healthy weight before pregnancy reduces your risks of defects to the brain or spine, preterm delivery, diabetes, Caesarean section and other medical conditions.

Research shows that promoting your health before pregnancy improves health outcomes for both you and the baby. If you’re sexually active, you should know about the risks of conceiving whether you’re planning a pregnancy right now or not.

If you’ve conceived an unplanned pregnancy, see your healthcare provider as soon as possible.

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