A lot of research is being carried out to study growth and development of a newborn. One of the factors that was recently found to be key is the general health of both parents, during the conception period. This has been recently published as a series of papers in the Lancet journal, which suggests that the diet and lifestyle of parents can significantly impact the overall growth of the child.
In order to address this global problem, a number of parameters were studied.
Which period is actually referred to as the pre-conception period?
Earlier research defined preconception period as three months before conception. This is the average time that a fertile couple takes to become pregnant. However, it is possible that different couples may take shorter or longer durations to achieve an optimum health.
For instance, one couple may take about a month to reach adequate folate concentrations using supplements, while an overweight couple may take several months to almost a year to reach their healthy weight. Thus, the authors now redefine this preconception period, depending on the overall health of each couple, as to days or weeks before and after fertilization, individually- as weeks or months when a woman or couple decides to have a child; and at a public health level – it is defined as the time required to address preconception risk factors, such as diet and obesity, before pregnancy.
What are the common risk factors before pregnancy?
Smoking, alcohol, caffeine, malnourished diet, obesity and other health problems can qualify as risk factors that can cause impairments in the newborn child, either at the genetic or at a physiological level. Some of these factors can have long-lasting effects on the child and can lead to various metabolic, immune or neurological disorders.
As expected, maternal obesity is linked to poorer birth rates and can increase the risks of chronic disease in the newborn. Interestingly, male obesity could also potentially affect the health of the offspring but it is speculated that the effects are not as severe as those seen in case of maternal health. Based on these pieces of evidence, it is useful to prepare women as well as males and arrange for interventions years before pregnancy. It is important to improve the general health of parents from an early age which will work not only for their own benefit but also to improve the overall development of their offspring.
“The preconception period is a critical time when parental health – including weight, metabolism, and diet – can influence the risk of future chronic disease in children, and we must now re‐examine public health policy to help reduce this risk,” says lead author of the Series, Professor Judith Stephenson, UCL, UK.
“While the current focus on risk factors, such as smoking and excess alcohol intake, is important, we also need new drives to prepare nutritionally for pregnancy for both parents. Raising awareness of preconception health, and increasing availability of support to improve health before conception will be crucial.”
Professor Stephenson also stresses: “This isn’t about provoking fear or blaming individuals – our analysis establishes the importance of health of the next generation, stresses societal responsibility, and demands strong local, national and international leadership.”
How to improve preconception health?
There is a need for creating awareness, extending help and support for couples that are planning a pregnancy. This can be achieved by undertaking various public measures that support interventions to reduce obesity and improve the lifestyle of individuals. Supplementation and fortification of diet to improve nutrition and health at a population level, especially amongst the underprivileged couples are needed to support these efforts. This initiative can be taken starting from a school where young adults are prepared for parenthood and are trained to take care of their diet, health and lifestyle in general.
“Current preconception health interventions may be limited by their focus on individual responsibility, and not directly addressing social influences or the obesogenic environment. Improving the overall health of the population, as well as raising awareness of the importance of the preconception period could help improve the health of future generations,” says Dr Mary Barker, University of Southampton UK.
“It is everyone’s responsibility to support our young adults become successful parents of healthy, long‐lived children. We have the infrastructure to do this in our existing health and education platforms and a global food system, but must now prioritize improving preconception health.”
Studies like these not only change the outlook of the families during pregnancy but also pave way for a number of strategies and plans that can easily be undertaken to yield a more healthy new generation and sustain healthy families.
The original paper can be accessed here.
Preconception health: Before the beginning: nutrition and lifestyle in the preconception period and its importance for future health Professor Judith Stephenson et al The Lancet Published Online April 16, 2018 http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(18)30311-8