Prenatal Nutrition

Baby Building Blocks: Preconception, Conception, and After

A healthy baby is a reflection of how a mom and dad took care of themselves prior to pregnancy, during pregnancy, and even after. Too often, parents begin healthy habits only after conception, ultimately missing an important window of opportunity to maximize the odds of the healthiest possible outcome. At least six months prior to trying to conceive, prospective parents should treat their bodies as if they were pregnant. Focusing on the proper foods and nutrients gives a family a better chance for a quicker conception, smoother pregnancy, healthier baby, and easier recovery. Those who are pregnant or thinking about bringing a bundle of joy into their lives will not want to miss this important information!

The Power of Food

The effects of nutrition on future health are most critical while a baby is in the womb! Mom must provide that nutrition. Additionally, since life does not stop for the pregnant mom, she must also have reserves left for her own energy and disease-prevention. A study published in Developmental Psychology in 2003 found that children born to mothers who experienced postpartum depression had a higher risk of displaying behavioral problems later.[1] This study is particularly interesting because both of these symptoms, postpartum depression and behavioral problems, are likely caused by the same deficiency – deficiency of essential fatty acids. A deficiency of essential vitamins and minerals can contribute to anything from difficulty getting pregnant to health problems for the newborn.[2] To take in adequate nutrition, one should consume nourishing, whole foods and take proper nutritional supplementation. Appropriate food choices include fresh organic fruits and vegetables, grass-fed meats, free-range eggs, wild fish, whole grains and legumes.

Of particular importance are omega-3 fatty acids (especially EPA and DHA). These fats are essential to a baby’s growth and development – especially the brain and eyes. American women tend to be low in these valuable fats because of the decline in consumption of the foods that they are found in, such as wild-caught fish, cod liver oil, and egg yolks from hens fed fish meal, algae, or flax. According to the brain-building expert Carol Simontacchi in her book Crazy Makers, in some Asian countries, eggs are recognized as brain food and many pregnant and nursing moms eat twelve eggs per day, just to get the essential fatty acids for their babies.[3] After birth, the child’s requirements for fatty acids remain high until about two years of age, when brain growth is essentially finished.3 Simontacchi stresses that one trend among different traditional cultures is that none favors low-fat diets, particularly during pregnancy![4]

Adequate protein is another important part of baby-making. The body relies on protein to manufacture new cells and hormones, fight illness and infection, and produce the extra blood cells a fetus needs to develop normally.[5],[6],[7] Furthermore, nausea can be exacerbated by low blood sugar.[8] One of the best approaches to avoiding low blood sugar is to ensure that each meal has a heaping serving of quality protein, such as grass-fed meat, free-range eggs, nuts, or cottage cheese.

Caffeine and alcohol may contribute to infertility and poor nutrition for the mother and baby. Women who drink 300 mg or more of caffeine daily (about two to three cups of coffee) may reduce their chance of pregnancy by about 25%.6 Moreover, numerous studies show that even moderate amounts of caffeine contribute to birth defects, increased risk for low-birth-weight offspring, and reproductive problems.5 Alcohol consumption during pregnancy, even in small amounts, has been shown to increase the risk of hyperactivity, short attention span, and emotional problems in a child.[9] Finally, consuming too many sugary and processed foods, like pastas and bakery items, may double the risk of neural tube defects in newborns. Scientists believe that the sudden release of large amounts of glucose that occurs after eating sugary or highly processed foods may interfere with the baby’s development in the womb.[10]

Special Baby-Making Nutrients

The development and growth of each organ and tissue has its own pattern and timing. For example, a baby’s heart and brain are well developed in the first 16 weeks, even though the lungs remain nonfunctional. Each organ and tissue needs the nutrients essential for growth and development during its intensive growth spurt. Poor dietary intake at one point during a pregnancy can make an impact.[11] Furthermore, a baby can pull vitamins, minerals, and protein from the mother’s bones, organs, tissues, and other storage areas if they are not supplied in the mother’s diet. This can leave the mother depleted, which can take a long time, even years, to correct.[12] Of course the first goal is to try to get as much nutrition from quality foods, and then add nutritional supplementation for extra support.[13]

It is a good idea to start supplementing with a prenatal supplement even before pregnancy. There is scientific evidence that women who use a multivitamin-mineral formula containing folic acid beginning three months before becoming pregnant and continuing through the first three months of pregnancy have a significantly lower risk of having babies with neural tube defects (e.g., spina bifida) and other congenital defects.[14],[15] Depending on one’s diet and specific situation, additional supplements may be advisable. For example, in one study, pregnant women who used a zinc-containing nutritional supplement in the three months before and after conception had a 36% decreased chance of having a baby with a neural tube defect, and women who had the highest dietary zinc intake (but took no vitamin supplement) had a 30% decreased risk.[16]

B Vitamin Complex

The B vitamin complex plays numerous roles in pregnancy, including cell division and growth of the fetus, digestion of protein and carbohydrate in the mother, and the prevention of anemia and toxemia during pregnancy. In general, adequate intake of B vitamins helps prevent nervousness, skin problems, and lack of energy.8 Although these nutrients are found in a prenatal vitamin, a few should be given particular attention and possibly supplemented in addition to a prenatal. These include folic acid, B12, and niacin. Folic Acid has been shown to prevent low birth weight[17] as well as neural tube defects (e.g spina bifida).[18] Women should take in at least 400 micrograms (mcg), and as much as 800 mcg of folic acid daily. 20 This amount should include the amount from food, which is especially high in fortified foods. (Note: Some people have a genetic mutation that alters their body’s ability to use supplemental folic acid. For more information on this gene mutation go to Vitamin B12 is of particular interest to vegetarians since it is found only in foods of animal origin. For this reason, many health professionals do not recommend strict vegetarianism during pregnancy. A lack of vitamin B12 has been linked to repeated miscarriages, neural tube defects, and a type of anemia.5 Finally, niacin (a form of vitamin B3) supplementation during the first trimester has been correlated with higher birth weights, longer length, and larger head circumference (all signs of healthier infants).[19]


Calcium needs double during pregnancy.[20] A primary use of calcium is to build a baby’s bones and teeth. Supplementation with calcium may also reduce the risk of preterm delivery and pre-eclampsia.[21] Pregnant women can use up to 1,500 mg of calcium per day, which includes that from food sources such as dairy products, dark leafy greens, sardines, and almonds.5 Pregnant women who fail to consume and absorb adequate calcium add to their osteoporosis risk later in life, especially if they become pregnant again.[22]

Essential fatty acids

Essential fatty acids, particularly DHA, are quickly becoming one of the most studied and recommended nutrients for pregnant women 3 Cod liver oil taken by nursing mothers improves the fatty acid profile in breast milk (promoting optimal brain development) and also increases levels of vitamin A (preventing infections).23,24 Pregnant women using cod liver oil have infants with a lower risk for juvenile type 1 diabetes.21 Also, women with higher DHA levels suffer less from postpartum depression.[23] Supplementation with fish oil has been shown to significantly reduce the recurrence of premature delivery.[24] Books on feeding infants published in the 1930’s and 1940’s routinely recommended cod liver oil, so the news of the benefits from these fats is not hot-off-the-press! Note: The difference between cod liver and fish oil is that cod liver oil contains vitamins A and D, two nutrients that are often low in many diets. Fish oil is from the flesh of fish and contains just the EPA and DHA.

Plentiful good bacteria

Plentiful good bacteria can mean fewer allergies! Our inner ecology is intricately linked to immunity and intestinal health. A mother’s beneficial bacteria impact the baby during growth, birth, and breastfeeding. Babies who do not receive adequate microflora early in life are more prone to allergies, infections, food sensitivities, and malabsorption problems. Babies receive healthy bacteria through a vaginal birth and probiotic supplementation, and breast milk contains factors that support the growth of those bacteria.[25],[26] In one study researchers gave a group of pregnant women probiotic capsules every day for a few weeks before their due dates. For 6 months after delivery, women who breast-fed continued on the probiotics and bottle-fed infants were given the bacteria directly. All of the babies were considered to be at high risk of developing allergies, since they had either a parent or sibling that was affected. Children who had received probiotics were half as likely to develop eczema as those in a control group that received no probiotic supplementation.[27] These results confirm that intestine-dwelling bacteria can train the infant’s immune system to resist allergic reactions. Besides supplements, foods that encourage the proliferation of good gut bacteria include raw cultured vegetables, quality yogurt, and kefir. See Body Ecology Diet by Donna Gates for more information on cultured foods and their benefits.

Baby Supportive Herbs

There are a few traditional herbs used to strengthen or invigorate organ systems or the entire body that can be taken safely every day during pregnancy. Examples include dandelion leaf and root, red raspberry leaf, and nettle. Dandelion leaf and root are rich sources of vitamins and minerals, including beta-carotene, calcium, potassium, and iron, and can support the liver.[28] Red raspberry leaf is the most frequently mentioned herb for general support of pregnancy and breast-feeding. Rich in vitamins and minerals (especially iron), it is traditionally used to strengthen the uterus, increase milk flow, and restore the mother’s system after childbirth.[29] Finally, nettle leaf is rich in the minerals calcium and iron and is mildly diuretic. Nettle is believed to enrich and increase the flow of breast milk and restore a mother’s energy following childbirth.[30] Bear in mind, these herbs are found in tincture, capsule, or tea form, often times in combination.

Nourishing a mother-to-be and building a healthy baby may take a little extra effort, but what can be more rewarding than knowing that you did everything possible to encourage the best development and health for your child? So, for your baby shower, don’t ask for diapers and a bassinet, register for prenatals and cod liver oil instead!

Be Sure to Breastfeed!

The importance of breastfeeding is unquestionable. Breast milk is perfectly designed for a baby’s physical and mental development. Breastfed babies tend to be more robust, intelligent, and free of allergies and other complaints, especially intestinal difficulties.4 One study found that babies of mothers with higher DHA levels (which shows up in breast milk) slept longer and more soundly than those of mothers with lower DHA levels.[31] Several studies have established a convincing link between breastfeeding and weight control later in life. Essentially, the longer the period in which babies receive breast milk, the less likely they are to become obese.[32]  Breastfed infants are also less likely than bottle-fed babies to develop respiratory illnesses as children.[33] Compared to formula-fed infants, breast-fed infants are less likely to develop otitis media (middle ear infections) and diarrhea during the first six months of life,[34] and less likely to require hospitalization if ill.[35] Some researchers believe that breast-fed infants have the potential to have higher intelligence and greater academic achievement than formula-fed infants, which is thought to be due to the DHA found in mother’s milk and not in U.S. formulas.[36] Consider contacting your local LaLeche League for support and credentialed advice on breastfeeding. Go to for more information or to find a group near you.

Bear in mind, breast milk is only as healthy as what the mother is eating to nourish her milk. Thus, it is just as important to maintain healthy eating and supplement practices after pregnancy as it is during. Chemicals and damaged fats, which are dangerous to a growing baby, will be present in mother’s milk if they are present in her diet. For instance, in a Canadian study, trans fatty acids, a dangerous damaged fat, averaged 7.2% of the total fatty acids in breast milk. The main source of trans-fats was partially- hydrogenated vegetable oils. The researchers also found that the levels of essential fatty acids were inversely related to the total trans-fats, which means that the elevation of trans-fats in human milk is at the expense of essential fatty acids.[37] If formula feeding is necessary, refer to the nutrition-dense recipes provided in the book Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon and Mary Enig or The Nourishing Traditions Book of Baby and Child Care by Sally Fallon and Thomas S. Cowan.


[1] Hay DF, Pawlby S, Angold A, Harold GT, Sharp D. Pathways to violence in the children of mothers who were depressed postpartum. Dev Psychol. 2003 Nov; 39(6): 1083-94.

[2] Price WA. Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, 50th anniv. Ed. New Canaan, CT: Keats Pulishing, Inc., 1989.

[3] Simontacchi, Carol. The Crazy Makers. Penguin Pub. 2000.

[4] Fallon, Sally. Nourishing Traditions. ProMotion Publishing. 1995

[5] Somer, Elizabeth, M.A., R.D. Nutrition for a Healthy Pregnancy. Henry Hold and Com. 1995

[6] Eberle, Suzanne Girard, M.S., R.D. Your Healthy Pregnancy. Found at on April 2001.

[7] Goldbeck, Nikki. As You Eat So Your Baby Grows. Ceres Press. 2000.

[8] Goldbeck, Nikki. As You Eat So Your Baby Grows. Ceres Press. 2000.

[9] Gold S, Sherry L. Hyperactivity, learning disabilities, and alcohol. J Learn Disabil 1984;17:3–6

[10]Shaw GM, Quach T, Nelson V, et al. Neural tube defects associated with maternal periconceptional dietary intake of simple sugars and glycemic index. Am J Clin Nutr. November, 2003;78(5):972-978

[11] Price WA. Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, 50th anniv. Ed. New Canaan, CT: Keats Pulishing, Inc., 1989.

[12] Rosenberg, Charles, C.N. Prenatal Nutrition. Nutrition Science News. Feb 2000.

[13] Somer, Elizabeth, M.A., R.D. Nutrition for a Healthy Pregnancy. Henry Hold and Com. 1995.

[14] Botto LD, Mulinare J, Erickson JD. Occurrence of congenital heart defects in relation to maternal mulitivitamin use. Am J Epidemiol 2000;151:878–84

[15] Czeizel AE. Reduction of urinary tract and cardiovascular defects by periconceptional multivitamin supplementation. Am J Med Genet 1996;62:179–83.

[16] Velie EM, Block G, Shaw GM, et al. Maternal supplemental and dietary zinc intake and the occurrence of neural tube defects in California. Am J Epidemiol 1999;150:605–16

[17] Scholl TO, Hediger ML, Schall JI, et al. Dietary and serum folate: their influence on the outcome of pregnancy. Am J Clin Nutr 1996;63:520–5

[18] MRC Vitamin Study Research Group. Prevention of neural tube defects: Results of the Medical Research Council Vitamin Study. Lancet 1991;338:131–7

[19] Doyle W, et al. The association between maternal diet and birth dimensions. J Nutr Med 1990;1:9–17.

[20] Truswell AS. ABC of nutrition. Nutrition for pregnancy. Br Med J 1985;291:263–66.

[21] Villar J, Repke JT. Calcium supplementation during pregnancy may reduce preterm delivery in high-risk populations. Am J Obstet Gynecol 1990;163:1124–31.

[22] Rev Med Intene, 1997 vol 18.

[23] Authors?Increased risk of postpartum depressive symptoms is associated with slower normalization after pregnancy of the functional docosahexaenoic acid status. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids. 2003 Oct;69(4):237-43.

[24] Olsen SF, Secher NJ, Tabor A, et al. Randomised clinical trials of fish oil supplementation in high risk pregnancies. Fish Oil Trials In Pregnancy (FOTIP) Team. Brit J Obstet Gynecol 2000;107:382–95

[25] Trenev, N. Probiotics: Nature’s Internal Healers. 1998. Avery Publishing Group. New York.

[26] Chaitow, L. Probiotics: The Friendly Bacteria. Senior Lecturer,University of Westminster. 1996. Found on

[27] Kalliomäki M, Salminen S, Arvilommi H, et al: Probiotics in primary prevention of atopic disease: a randomised placebo-controlled trial. Lancet 2001, 357:1076-1079

[28] Gladstar R. Herbal Healing for Women. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993, 176.

[29] Gladstar R. Herbal Healing for Women. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993, 177.

[30] Gladstar R. Herbal Healing for Women. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993, 177

[31] Cheruku SR, Montgomery-Downs HE, Farkas SL, Thoman EB, Lammi-Keefe CJ.  Higher maternal plasma docosahexaenoic acid [DHA] during pregnancy is associated with more mature neonatal sleep-state patterning. Am J Clin Nutr. 2002 Sep;76(3):608-13.

[32] Lancet 2002; 359: 2003-04.

[33] Wilson AC, Forsyth JS, Creene SA, et al. Relation of infant diet to childhood health: seven year follow up of cohort children in Dundee infant feeding study. BMJ 1998; 316:21-5.

[34] Scariati PD. A longitudinal analysis of infant mortality and the extent of breast-feeding in the US. Pediatrics. 1997;99:5-12.

[35] Chen Y. Artificial feeding and hospitalization in the first 18 months of life. Pediatrics 1988;81:58-62.

[36] Pediatrics 1998;101(1):37985

[37] Ratnayake WM, Chen ZY. Trans, n-3, and n-6 fatty acids in Canadian human milk. Lipids 1996 March;31 Suppl:S279-82