Many women planning for a baby lack the healthy lifestyles that could lead to better outcomes, researchers have said.
A new study by charity Tommy’s suggests more than half of women are not following Public Health England’s advice for those preparing to conceive.
In 2018 the government agency told women planning a pregnancy to avoid risks such as alcohol consumption, illegal substance use, obesity and smoking.
Recommendations include taking folic acid supplements, eating healthily, and exercising regularly.
Experts analysed survey data from the Planning for Pregnancy online tool run by Tommy’s and looked at results from 131,182 women across the UK – 65% of whom had stopped taking contraception.
More than half of them drank alcohol and only 32% took folic acid supplements.
One in five smoked – a risk increased by the fact that most women who smoke before pregnancy continue to do so after conception.
Some 42% exercised for less than the recommended 150 minutes per week, while only 53% ate five portions of fruit or vegetables four days a week.
Among the 111,032 women who gave their height and weight data, 3% were underweight, 26% were overweight and 29% were obese.
Smoking and drug use were common in younger women under 25 and those who were underweight.
They were also less likely to take folic acid supplements.
Author Dr Angela Flynn said: “Every parent wants to give their children the best start in life, but our study suggests it’s not well known in the UK that people can take steps before they even start trying to increase their chances of having a safe pregnancy and a healthy baby.”
She said there is plenty of evidence that folic acid supplements improve pregnancy health, and it is worrying that so few people are taking them when trying for a baby.
Tommy’s midwife Amina Hatia said that while most people make changes to look after their health once they are pregnant, many do not know the advantages of acting even earlier.
“Pregnancy-related health issues often have nothing to do with parents’ lifestyles,” she said, “but research shows there are things that can reduce the risks, so sharing this information is a vital part of our mission to make the UK the safest place in the world to have a baby.”
Dr Edward Morris, president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, said a “research stategy” looking into women’s lifestyles before conception is needed.
He said: “There is a lack of information about the actions that women can take when planning a pregnancy in order to increase fertility, increase the chance of having an uncomplicated pregnancy, and help achieve the best outcome for mother and baby.”