Pregnant? You already know to steer clear of alcohol and cigarettes. Here are other hazards to avoid.
By Leah Hennen
When I was expecting my first child, threats to my baby’s health seemed to lurk everywhere. I knew, of course, that alcohol, cigarettes, and drugs of any kind were off-limits. But what about those lattes I’d chugged before I knew I was pregnant? Did I need to get rid of my beloved cats? What sort of environmental hazards was I unwittingly exposing my fetus to? Nine months of caffeine withdrawal, cat avoidance, and breath-holding-around-noxious-odors later, my strapping baby boy arrived.
Unlike me, you don’t have to be paranoid when you’re pregnant. “You can’t put yourself in a glass bottle during pregnancy—all you can do is avoid known risks,” says Dr. Robert Resnik, a professor of reproductive medicine at the University of California, San Diego, School of Medicine. Since some women, such as those with high blood pressure or gestational diabetes, need to take extra precautions, talk to your doctor about special circumstances that relate to you. Also steer clear of the following:
Too Much Caffeine
For java junkies like me, the research on caffeine during pregnancy has been maddeningly contradictory. Some studies point to problems such as miscarriage and low birth weight, while others show no such relationship. The latest consensus is that only excessive amounts of caffeine (more than 300 milligrams a day) are likely to cause these problems, says Dr. Kathleen Bradley, a maternal-fetal medicine specialist and assistant clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the UCLA School of Medicine. The caffeine content of different brews varies, but you should be able to stay under the 300-milligram mark by limiting your daily quaffing to one or two 5-ounce cups of coffee or tea or a few 12-ounce cans of soda. (Since even non-colas can pack quite a caffeine punch, check the label before you imbibe.) And while chocolate does contain caffeine, it typically has much less—1 to 35 milligrams per one ounce—than coffee.
Cat feces may play host to a parasite that causes toxoplasmosis. The symptoms (fever, fatigue, and sore throat) are similar to those of a garden-variety flu, but the results (miscarriage, preterm labor, or serious health problems in the newborn) can be devastating. Even so, having a baby on board doesn’t mean you need to send your puss packing, says Marion McCartney, a certified nurse-midwife and the director of professional services at the American College of Nurse-Midwives in Washington, D.C. It simply means you should put your mate on litter-box duty for the nine-month duration. It’s also a good idea to wash your hands after heavy petting sessions with the cat and after handling raw meat. Don’t feed yourself or the cat undercooked meat (which can harbor the parasite). Wear gloves when you’re gardening and avoid children’s sandboxes. (Roaming cats may use these as litter boxes.)
Beware, foodies: Uncooked, soft cheeses (such as feta, Camembert, Brie, and blue-veined varieties), unpasteurized milk and the foods made from it, and raw or undercooked meats, fish, and poultry may contain listeria bacteria. During pregnancy, listeriosis (symptoms include fever, chills, diarrhea, and nausea) can cause miscarriage, preterm labor, or stillbirth. Some seafood may also contain high levels of mercury, PCBs, and other toxins. If these foods are consumed during pregnancy, the baby is put at risk for developmental delays. (Your local health department may be able to tell you which fish to avoid.) Experts recommend that expecting mothers limit their servings of shark and swordfish—which contain higher levels of mercury than other fish—to one three-ounce serving a month. Finally, lab tests have linked heavy consumption of saccharine to cancer. Though you’re not likely to swill enough of the artificial sweetener to equal several times your body weight, you may still want to forgo those little pink packets for now. Aspartame (NutraSweet, Equal) appears to be a safe sugar substitute.
You know that many prescription drugs are off-limits during pregnancy, but the natural remedies you can pick up at health-food stores are okay, aren’t they? Guess again: Herbal remedies can have a potent effect on your body—and your baby’s—cautions McCartney. Don’t take anything without running it by your health-care provider first. She’ll most likely tell you not to use any during your first trimester. Throughout your pregnancy, steer clear of goldenseal, mugwort, and pennyroyal, all of which have been associated with uterine contractions (which could possibly lead to miscarriage or preterm labor); Asian ginseng (which interferes with metabolism); and feverfew (though popular for migraine headaches, it has unpredictable effects on pregnant women). It’s also wise to avoid herbal teas that purport to have medicinal benefits.
If you haven’t been gripped by that famous pregnancy cleaning-and-nesting frenzy, chances are you will be soon. Safety tips for those 3 a.m. floor-scrubbing and nursery-decorating sessions: Read labels carefully. Wear gloves and work in well-ventilated areas. And avoid aerosols (which disperse more chemicals into the air than pump bottles do), oven cleaners, paint fumes, solvents, and furniture strippers. Although frequent, heavy exposure to chemicals in the workplace (home workshops count, too) has been linked to birth defects, Bradley explains, home use of most products is more likely to make you feel faint or nauseous—not a great proposition when you’re nine months pregnant and perched high on a ladder or wedged behind the toilet.
Leah Hennen is a writer and editor in San Francisco and the mother of two, ages four and one.
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