It is important that the diet of a pregnant woman is nutritionally sound so that she produces a healthy baby, and at the same time keeps her own health. Even before pregnancy, it is vital that a woman of child-bearing age has a balanced diet so that she can cope with the demands of pregnancy.
There should be a popular saying that pregnant women should ‘eat for tow’. In one sense it is true, but it does not mean that she should eat double her normal amount of food. This is not necessary and it could lead to obesity.
A pregnant woman can get dietary advice from the community midwife, doctor and health visitor, who keep a careful check on the health of mother and baby. During early pregnancy, a woman may feel sick or be sick at any time of the day and night. This can make eating well very difficult. For that, all nutrients are important in pregnancy, but particularly the following.
- Essential fatty acids are needed by the fetus for brain growth and cell division.
- Vitamin D deficiency can lead to low birth weight and tetany in the baby, and to osteomalacia in the mother.
- Vitamin E is essential especially in the last 10 weeks of pregnancy. If a baby is born prematurely, it may need a vitamin E supplement.
- In pregnancy, Vitamin K deficiency can lead to haemorrhaging in the first month after birth. Most newborn babies are given vitamin K, either by mouth or as an injection, to prevent this.
- Folic acid is required very early in pregnancy for the correct development of the brain and nervous system in the fetus. A woman needs sufficient folic acid in her diet even before she becomes pregnant. Folic acid deficiency can lead to miscarriage, slow growth, a malformation in a fetus, or premature birth.
- A vegetarian mother may be deficient in vitamin B12, and may need to take a supplement during pregnancy and while breastfeeding to ensure she has sufficient. The fetus store vitamin B12 so that it has enough for the first 6 months after birth.
- The fetus needs a lot of calcium in the last few weeks of pregnancy, as the skeleton develops. If there is not enough calcium or vitamin D in the diet program for pregnant women, she may lose calcium from her skeleton, which can lead to weakened bones and teeth.
- The mother must have enough iron during pregnancy. It is needed to supply her own body and to provide the growing baby with a store of iron for the first few months after birth. Breast milk and cow milk are both poor sources of iron, so this store is vital. During the pregnancy, the level of haemoglobin in the blood is checked regularly. If there is less than 10mg, the mother is anaemic.
- Constipation can be a problem in pregnancy. If it is, women should increase the amount of fibre in their diet and take gentle exercise.