Prenatal Care Basics

What is prenatal care?

Prenatal care is the health care you get before delivery and while you are pregnant. You can take care of yourself and your baby by:

  • Getting early prenatal care. If you know you're pregnant, or think you might be, call your doctor to schedule a visit.
  • Getting regular prenatal care. Your doctor will schedule you for many checkups over the course of your pregnancy. Don't miss any — they are all important.
  • Following your doctor's advice.

Prenatal care begins before pregnancy

Optimally, by the time you find out that you are pregnant, you are ready. You are your optimal weight, you regularly take a prenatal supplement including folic acid, and you know what to do and what not to do.

Why do I need prenatal care?

Prenatal care can help keep you and your baby healthy. Babies of mothers who do not get prenatal care are three times more likely to have a low birth weight and five times more likely to die than those born to mothers who do get care.

Doctors can spot health problems early when they see mothers regularly. This allows doctors to treat them early. Early treatment can cure many problems and prevent others. Doctors also can talk to pregnant women about things they can do to give their unborn babies a healthy start to life.

Prenatal care starts with your first doctor's visit

The first visit with your doctor is essential. Read more about what happens at the first prenatal visit here. It determines what happens with your pregnancy, and tests are done to make sure everything is OK

Most important things you can do before and during pregnancy

  • Take 400 to 800 micrograms (400 to 800 mcg or 0.4 to 0.8 mg) of folic acid every day for at least 3 months before getting pregnant to lower your risk of some birth defects of the brain and spine. You can get folic acid from some foods. But it's hard to get all the folic acid you need from foods alone. Taking a vitamin with folic acid is the best and easiest way to be sure you're getting enough.
  • Stop smoking and drinking alcohol. Ask your doctor for help.
  • If you have a medical condition, be sure it is under control. Some conditions include asthma, diabetes, depression, high blood pressure, obesity, thyroid disease, or epilepsy. Be sure your vaccinations are up to date.
  • Talk to your doctor about any over-the-counter and prescription medicines you are using. These include dietary or herbal supplements. Some medicines are not safe during pregnancy. At the same time, stopping medicines you need also can be harmful.
  • Avoid contact with toxic substances or materials at work and at home that could be harmful. Stay away from chemicals and cat or rodent feces.
  • Get early and regular prenatal care. Whether this is your first pregnancy or third, health care is extremely important. Your doctor will check to make sure you and the baby are healthy at each visit. If there are any problems, early action will help you and the baby.
  • Ask your doctor before stopping any medicines or starting any new medicines. Some medicines are not safe during pregnancy. Keep in mind that even over-the-counter medicines and herbal products may cause side effects or other problems. But not using medicines you need could also be harmful.
  • Get a flu shot. Pregnant women can get very sick from the flu and may need hospital care.
  • Gain a healthy amount of weight. Your doctor can tell you how much weight gain you should aim for during pregnancy.
  • Unless your doctor tells you not to, try to get at least 2 hours and 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity a week. It's best to spread out your workouts throughout the week. If you worked out regularly before pregnancy, you can keep up your activity level as long as your health doesn't change and you talk to your doctor about your activity level throughout your pregnancy. Learn more about how to have a fit pregnancy.
  • Don't take very hot baths and don't use hot tubs or saunas.
  • Get plenty of sleep and find ways to control stress.
  • Get informed. Read books, watch videos, go to a childbirth class, and talk with moms you know.
  • Ask your doctor about childbirth education classes for you and your partner. Classes can help you prepare for the birth of your baby.
  • Stay away from chemicals like insecticides, solvents (like some cleaners or paint thinners), lead, mercury, and paint (including paint fumes). Not all products have pregnancy warnings on their labels. If you're unsure if a product is safe, ask your doctor before using it. Talk to your doctor if you are worried that the chemicals used in your workplace might be harmful.
  • If you have a cat, ask your doctor about toxoplasmosis. This infection is caused by a parasite sometimes found in cat feces. If not treated toxoplasmosis can cause birth defects. You can lower your risk by avoiding cat litter and wearing gloves when gardening. 
  • Avoid contact with rodents, including pet rodents, and with their urine, droppings, or nesting material. Rodents can carry a virus that can be harmful or even deadly to your unborn baby.
  • Take steps to avoid illness, such as washing hands frequently.
  • Stay away from secondhand smoke.

How often should I see my doctor during pregnancy?

Your doctor will give you a schedule of all the doctor's visits you should have while pregnant. Most experts suggest you see your doctor:

  • About once each month for weeks 4 through 28
  • Twice a month for weeks 28 through 36
  • Weekly for weeks 36 to birth
  • If you are older than 35 or your pregnancy is high risk, you'll probably see your doctor more often. 

What happens during prenatal visits?

During the first prenatal visit, you can expect your doctor to:

  • Ask about your health history including diseases, operations, or prior pregnancies
  • Ask about your family's health history
  • Do a complete physical exam, including a pelvic exam and Pap test
  • Take your blood and urine for lab work
  • Check your blood pressure, height, and weight
  • Calculate your due date
  • Answer your questions
  • At the first visit, you should ask questions and discuss any issues related to your pregnancy. Find out all you can about how to stay healthy.

Later prenatal visits will probably be shorter. Your doctor will check on your health and make sure the baby is growing as expected. Most prenatal visits will include:

  • Checking your blood pressure
  • Measuring your weight gain
  • Measuring your abdomen to check your baby's growth (once you begin to show)
  • Checking the baby's heart rate
  • While you're pregnant, you also will have some routine tests. Some tests are suggested for all women, such as blood work to check for anemia, your blood type, HIV, and other factors. Other tests might be offered based on your age, personal or family health history, your ethnic background, or the results of routine tests you have had. Visit the pregnancy section of our website for more details on prenatal care and tests.

Read More:
Online Pregnancy Test
Negative Pregnancy Test: Can I Still Be Pregnant?
Early Signs You May Be Pregnant
Prenatal Pregnancy Tests
Why Do Doctors Measure Your Stomach at Prenatal Visits?

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