by Charlotte Andersen for SHAPE.com
Even if you're not planning on getting pregnant anytime soon, you might want to consider learning a a little more about science of baby-making. New research shows that a startling number of reproductive-age women still need to be clued-in about the basics of reproductive health. A study published in the January 27 issue of Fertility & Sterility found that about 50 percent of reproductive-age women had never discussed their reproductive health with a medical provider and about 30 percent visited their reproductive health provider less than once a year or never.
The study was conducted by researchers at Yale School of Medicine and is based on an anonymous online survey conducted in March 2013 of 1,000 women between the ages of 18 and 40 representing all ethnic and geographic regions of the U.S. The research includes the following major findings about women's understanding of fertility and pregnancy:
-Forty percent of the reproductive-age women surveyed expressed concern about their ability to conceive.
-Half were unaware that multivitamins with folic acid are recommended to reproductive-age women to prevent birth defects.
-More than 25 percent were unaware of the adverse implications of sexually transmitted infections, obesity, smoking, or irregular menses on fertility.
-One-fifth were unaware of the adverse effects of aging on reproductive success, including increased miscarriage rates, chromosomal abnormalities, and increased length of time to achieve conception.
-Half of respondents believe that having sex more than once a day will increase chances of conception.
-More than one-third of women believed that specific sexual positions and elevating the pelvis can increase chances of conception.
-Only 10% of women were aware that intercourse should happen before ovulation, not after, to improve chances of conception.
As more women delay pregnancy until later in life, it's important to get the facts early on so your body is ready for baby when you finally do decide you want one. "Preparing yourself now helps you conceive faster, have a healthier pregnancy and an easier delivery, and makes you a healthier person overall," says Sheryl Ross, M.D., an ob-gyn at Saint John's Health Center. "The most important thing you can do for both yourself and any future children is to be your healthiest self now." So if you think you want to have a child at some point-whether in nine months or in 10 years-our experts have some essential tips to help you prime your bod for baby.
If You Want a Baby...Right Now
Schedule pre-baby gyno appointment. When you're pregnant, not only will you grow an entire human being inside of you, but you'll also double your blood volume, sprout an extra organ, and have your hormones skyrocket to the highest levels they will ever be in your lifetime. That takes a lot of preparation, both physically and mentally. Talk with your doc about your medical history, in case you need certain genetic or blood tests before trying to conceive. You should also talk about any medications you may be taking, like anti-depressants, since some are not safe to take during pregnancy and you need to wean off them slowly.
Go off the pill three to four months before trying.
"It's so important to really know and understand your own menstrual cycle," Ross says. You should learn how to tell when you're ovulating based on cervical mucous, body temperature, and timing; the length of your cycle; and what a "normal" cycle feels like to you. She recommends the Maybe Baby app to help you keep track of all those stats, particularly if you're timing intercourse to maximize your odds of getting pregnant.
Find mommy friends. "Cultivate a network of other mothers during pregnancy and beyond for support, babysitting, and friendship," says Danine Fruge, M.D., women's health expert and associate medical director at Pritikin.
Get your man on board. Emerging research suggests a man's health can affect the quality of his sperm and the health of his child. "He needs to eat healthy and give up smoking, especially weed," Ross says, adding that marijuana affects both the motility and quality of a man's sperm.
Do a blood sugar check. Many women start pregnancy with insulin resistance (pre-diabetes) and then develop gestational diabetes during pregnancy. This can cause delivery complications, a higher risk of emergency delivery and C-sections, prolonged hospitalization, and a higher risk of your child developing diabetes and even heart disease at a young age. So if your blood tests come back showing high levels of blood glucose, if you have already been diagnosed with diabetes or pre-diabetes, or if gestational diabetes runs in your family, talk to your doctor about how to safely get it under control.
Stress less. If you're trying to get pregnant and it doesn't happen right away, it's easy to get stressed out…which may further hinder your odds of getting knocked up. In a 2011 study published in the Journal of Fertility and Sterility, researchers found that when a woman is more stressed, her likelihood to conceive that month is "significantly reduced." But when women reduced stress in their lives, their fertility returned to normal levels expected for their age. "True infertility is relatively rare, only affecting about 10 percent of women," Ross says. "Most women take between three and six months to get pregnant." But if you've reduced your stress and have been trying for more than six months with no luck, Ross says to check in with your doctor.
If You Want a Baby...in the Next 5 to 10 Years
Supercharge your meals. Ross recommends the Mediterranean diet to her patients because its emphasis on whole grains, fish, vegetables, and healthy fats, like the kinds found in nuts and olive oil, give your body all the nutritional building blocks it needs to grow a healthy baby and keep mama in tip-top form. Studies have shown that the Mediterranean diet reduces your risk of heart attack, stroke, and diabetes, and also correlates with a longer life span. A 2013 study showed that women who eat a lot of omega-3 fatty acids, the kind found in fish, give birth to children with higher IQs and less risk of hyperactivity.
Pop a multivitamin.
While experts says you should try to get all your nutrients from a healthy diet, you should consider a few supplements if you're trying to conceive. "Folic acid, found in whole grains and vegetables, is one of the most important nutrients for women in their childbearing years," says Alane Park, M.D., an ob-gyn at Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles. The mineral can help prevent neural tube defects like spina bifida in developing fetuses. Take 800mcg daily or 400mcg if you're following the Mediterranean diet, Ross says. She also recommends 500mg of fish oil and 2,000mg of vitamin D3 to her patients. Vitamin D is essential for both moms and babies, as it plays an important role in supporting the immune system. And if you haven't already, you should quit smoking and limit alcohol to one drink a day.
Pay extra attention to your abs. "Core strength improves the health of the pregnancy by helping support the weight of the baby and keeping your joints and ligaments in alignment, plus it can also lead to a faster and easier delivery," Ross says. And women who start out with strong core muscles tend to heal faster from a diastis-the separation between your abdominals that occurs in about 50 percent of women during pregnancy-leading to a flatter tummy faster after baby. Because you're not supposed to work your abs muscles after your first trimester, it's crucial to build that strength now. Ross recommends Pilates or yoga once or twice a week.
Ramp up your cardio. Pregnancy places a huge amount of stress on all your organs. Your kidneys and liver have to filter twice the volume of blood, and your lungs are now breathing for two despite being increasingly squished as the baby grows and pushes your diaphragm up. But the real risk is to your heart. "Pregnancy is now considered a woman's first cardiac stress test," Fruge says. "And if she develops high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or obesity during pregnancy, then she is at high risk herself for future heart disease and will need extra cardiac monitoring for the rest of her life." Ross suggests exercising five times a week for 45 to 60 minutes at a time, doing a mix of cardio and strength training.
Keep your sex life healthy. While regular gynecological check-ups are good advice for everyone, Ross says they're particularly important for women considering having children. In addition to your annual exam, it's important to see your gyno each time you have a new sexual partner to check for STIs that can cause damage your fertility or be passed on to a baby.
RELATED: 13 Questions You're Too Embarrassed to Ask Your Ob-Gyn
Don't wait too long.
Many women are under the assumption that they will be able to get pregnant any time they want to. In reality, a woman's fertility peaks in her early 20s and starts to decline around age 27. "We see 46-year-olds giving birth to twins, and it's a little misleading," Ross says. "You have a window of fertility that ends around age 40, and after that the miscarriage rate is greater than 50 percent." Fuge cautions that fertility treatments aren't the magic bullet that they're made out to be, either: "Especially if you think you may want to have more than one child, be careful of relying on fertility treatments because even with the most modern medicine there are no guarantees." For women older than 30, in vitro fertilization (IVF) only works about 30 percent of the time, and if you're 40-plus, that number drops to about 11 percent.