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How to prepare for a healthy pregnancy and birth 

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Being pregnant changes everything. Pregnancy is a nine-month marathon of preparation for delivery. Though there are cribs to build, diapers to buy and nerves to soothe, pregnant women should focus on the health of the baby and their personal well-being.

  "A pregnant woman is generally a healthy woman," says Marianna Clayton, lead lactation consultant at Touro Infirmary Hospital. "Pregnancy is the one experience that women will remember and talk about for the rest of their lives. There are people in place to enhance your experience, and education is key, so utilize your resources."

  Keeping health in check during pregnancy starts with small steps. "I encourage everyone, before becoming pregnant, to go in for their usual checkup and Pap smear with their provider," says Mary Alice Decoursey, a certified nurse-midwife who works with the obstetrics/gynecology practice Labadie and Labadie. If you're trying to conceive a baby, prenatal vitamins are an important addition to your daily regimen. They contain concentrated amounts of folic acid, which "works to prevent birth defects such as spina bifida," Decoursey says. Dr. Thomas Kennedy, an obstetrician/gynecologist at East Jefferson General Hospital, recommends prenatal vitamins containing at least 1 milligram of folic acid. "Start them a couple of months before the pregnancy," she says. "Over-the-counter prenatal vitamins usually contain less folic acid, so if you're an older woman then you'll need more."

  Examining delivery options and choosing the plan that seems most likely to give you the birth experience you want leads to a feeling of overall satisfaction. While many women choose a traditional delivery in a hospital, others prefer unmedicated birth under a midwife's supervision either at home or in a hospital. After all, birth is "an intense experience that can be short or as long as 30 hours," says Heidi Rau Duncan, a birth doula.

  Derived from the Greek word for servant, doulas are trained birth attendants who work with midwives. Though they are not licensed medical professionals, they provide moms-to-be with prenatal care and attend to their needs throughout the entire birth process. Birth doulas work to reduce women's stress levels by lending emotional and physical support before, during and after delivery. They help women "relax by suggesting different positions and movements," Duncan says. Their assistance may be especially helpful for women who "prefer a home birth with a familiar environment." Doulas aid women in transitioning to the hospital and stay by their sides for two to three hours after the birth. Postpartum doulas help new mothers adjust at home by assisting with breast-feeding and providing emotional support to the family as a whole.

  Expectant mothers should educate themselves about what to expect during pregnancy and learn to distinguish what's normal from what should be addressed immediately by a physician. Decoursey lists fatigue, nausea, vomiting and breast tenderness as common first-trimester problems. Women also may experience "cramping that feels as if they're starting their period," Kennedy says. "The second trimester is usually the best portion of the pregnancy, as you feel good and the baby starts moving." During the third trimester, the stomach becomes bigger, and that means more pressure on the body. Women often feel hot and uncomfortable during these months, and may have swollen feet and backaches. "(During the third trimester) they really start feeling the extra weight and not sleeping well," Kennedy says. "They often feel ligament pain, cramping sensations and urinate frequently as the baby pushes on the bladder."

  The final period of pregnancy often brings on worries as women naturally question whether their babies will be healthy and normal. Pregnant women can ease their worries by learning warning signs that indicate a problem with the pregnancy. Kennedy says to be wary of severe headaches and swelling, as these can be signs of hypertension. Decoursey warns of any bleeding or spotting throughout the pregnancy, pain within the hips and legs, blurred vision or dizziness.

  Moms-to-be should also strive to keep nutrition in check. "Keep a well-balanced diet, eating in moderation," Clayton says. This means loading your diet with complex carbs and proteins, keeping hydrated with plenty of water and stopping all alcohol consumption and smoking.

  Kennedy recommends staying active during pregnancy, as long as you don't keep your heart rate up for too long at a stretch."Swimming particularly helps to keep muscles toned," he says. He advises patients not to gain too much weight during pregnancy, as this makes it harder to move and actively participate in labor.

  Breastfeeding is recommended for newborns, and the process can cause anxiety for new moms. "[T]ime is of the essence with resolving difficulty (with breastfeeding)," Duncan says, suggesting women take breastfeeding classes before delivery to build their confidence. "A class helps to explain positioning, and there are lactation consultants there that you can ask for help," Duncan says. Breastfeeding provides several benefits for both mother and child. "The process imparts more immunity on the baby, preventing asthma and allergies later in life," Decoursey says. In addition, "the baby is getting the optimal things to help them grow, and the supply (of milk) is always there and ready. Mom also benefits through weight loss."

  To have a happy experience while your new family grows, always keep the focus on good health. "Consider your pregnancy a wellness rather than an illness," Decoursey says.

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