A recent quiz on Instagram found that some women thought you only needed to think about nutrition for your baby once you’re pregnant.
Think again! The nutrition and lifestyle of both a mother and father of a baby, prior to conceiving that baby, can improve foetal development, and lower their risk of developing allergic and metabolic disease in later life (1, 2). It’s a thing called epigenetics and we need to talk about it, so more people are aware of the significance of what they eat and the impact their lifestyle can have on the health of their future baby as an adult.
So, how long is the preconception period?
The first 1000 days of life spans from pre-conception, conception, pregnancy, infancy and early childhood up to the beginning of the 3rd year of life (3). But what is the preconception period? It’s actually a little hard to define because it really depends on your individual health and lifestyle (3). For example, if you’re overweight, it can delay the time to conception and can have impacts on foetal development (4). For many women, achieving a weight which is within the healthy weight range will take longer than three months.
It’s generally accepted that the 1-6 months prior to conception is defined as the preconception period for both male and female (4). However, for some, including, those who smoke, drink excessive alcohol, take illicit drugs, are overweight, have micronutrient deficiencies or do limited physical activity, this may extend beyond 6 months (4). Given that less than 1% of Australian women of reproductive age are meeting their needs of Choline, (an essential nutrient required in pregnancy for infant brain development and the prevention of neural tube defects), it makes sense that more time and attention is given to nourishing women of child bearing age. One month of eating well just may not be enough for some women who have undiagnosed micronutrient deficiencies.
So should you take Folic Acid before you conceive?
The answer to this very important questions is, yes absolutely. It’s a good idea to take folic acid for at least 3 months prior to conception as Folate is a critical nutrient in very early pregnancy for neurodevelopment and embryogenesis (5). Supplementation prior to pregnancy is associated with reduced rates of neural tube defects (e.g., spina bifida) and miscarriage (5). Furthermore, it’s a common misconception that it’s really hard to get pregnant after coming off the pill. But for some it can happen really quickly, in fact 40% of NZ pregnancies are unplanned (6), therefore, taking folic acid for several months prior to coming off contraception is a good idea.
So what are the take home messages?
- Research has shown that what you eat before you’re pregnant, impacts the neurodevelopment of your baby as an adult.
- The most active period of neurodevelopment is in the first 1000 days of life.
- The first 1000 days of life begins at least three months prior to conception and goes to the beginning of the third year of life.
- 40% of NZ pregnancies are unplanned.
- It’s a good idea to supplement with Folic Acid 3 months prior to coming off contraception.
- Assessing key micronutrient deficiencies and nourishing your body with baby loving nutrients at preconception, conception and pregnancy is essential for the optimal neurodevelopment of your baby.
- Jang H, Serra C. Nutrition, epigenetics and diseases. Clin Nut Res 2014;3:1-82.
- Lambrot R1, Xu C, Saint-Phar S, et al. Low paternal dietary folate alters the mouse sperm epigemone and is associated with negative pregnancy outcomes. Nat Commun 2013; 4:2889.
- Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gyneacologists. Pre-pregnancy Counselling. College statement C-Obs 3 (a). Current November 2012.4.
- Davies P, Funder J, Palmer D, et al. Early Life Nutrition and the opportunity to influence long-term health: an Australasian perspective. J Dev Orig Health Dis 2016; 7:440-448.5.
- Wehby GL, Murray JC. The effects of prenatal use of Folic Acid and other dietary supplements on early child development. Matern Child Health J. 2008;12:180-1876.
- Morton, S.M.B., atatoa Carr, p.e., Bandara, d.K., Grant, C.C., ivory, V.C., Kingi, T.r., liang, r., perese, l.M., peterson, e., pryor, J.e., reese, e., robinson, e.M., Schmidt, J.M., and waldie, K.e. 2010. Growing Up in New Zealand: A longitudinal study of New Zealand children and their families. Report 1: Before we are born. auckland: Growing Up in new Zealand.