During pregnancy, a developing fetus is tuned in to Mom, reacting to her voice, tasting the food she ate for dinner, feeling her sway as she walks around the block. But Mom influences the health and happiness of her offspring in even more powerful ways than that.
Research has found that in the belly and after birth, some of a child's genes can be flipped on or off depending on what Mom does (or doesn't do) while she's pregnant. And that can affect a child's health and happiness throughout life.
What are these powerful gene-flippers? The food Mom eats; how much weight she gains during pregnancy; how she reacts to stress; and her exposure to environmental toxins.
So, if you want to take control of your pregnancy and protect your bundle of joy, before and after you deliver:
1. Start prenatal vitamins before you get pregnant. Take a daily prenatal vitamin supplement containing folic acid for three months before you start trying to conceive; keep taking it while you are breastfeeding. In a recent Norwegian study of more than 85,000 kids, this simple step reduced children's risk for autism and autism-spectrum disorders by 39 percent.
2. Tune up your diet, too, before you make a baby. According to a new Australian study, women who munch more fruit and lean protein before pregnancy are 50 percent more likely to deliver a full-term baby than women who dine on high-saturated-fat and high-sugar foods.
3. Eat for 1.1 - not for 2! Pregnant women do need to gain weight, but just the right amount. According to the Institutes of Medicine, you should gain 25-35 pounds if you started at a healthy weight (BMI 18.5-24.9); 15-25 pounds if you were overweight (BMI 25-29.9); less than 15 pounds if you're obese (BMI over 30).
Best way to avoid gaining too much weight? Eat 10 percent more calories than usual during your first and second trimesters; up that to 15 percent to 20 percent more for the last three months. Gaining excess weight increases your risk for high blood pressure, diabetes and premature delivery.
And gaining too much weight increases the chances that your child will become obese later in life. (Hear those genes flipping?)
4. Wash your hands. A University of California, San Francisco, study found fewer than 20 percent of obstetricians regularly talk with their pregnant patients about toxins such as phthalates, BPA (bisphenol-A) and BPS (bisphenol-S, probably just as bad), pesticides and PCBs. They all can alter healthy fetal development.
Here's how to reduce your exposure: Don't handle cash register and store receipts. BPA (a hormone disruptor) is in the paper; wash your hands if you come into contact with it.
Don't microwave food in plastic containers; stay clear of pesticides; and eat two to three servings a week of fish like salmon, tuna (light canned), and/or cod. They're low in contaminants, such as mercury, and are loaded with omega-3s, which are so important for fetal brain development.
5. De-stress. High levels of stress during pregnancy increase the chance that a child will be overweight by age 10 to 13, according to a new Danish study. Other new research suggests a connection between a pregnant woman's stress level and an increase in her child's later risk for asthma.
De-stress with a daily relaxation technique: a breathing exercise, mindful meditation, listening to your favorite music or taking a walk. One recent British study reported that taking a yoga class also can keep expectant moms cool, calm and collected.
6. Protect your breast-milk supply, which is important for your infant's immune health. You'll increase production of breast milk if you gain a healthy amount of weight, eat a healthy diet and get the amount of exercise that's right for you.
Another breast-milk booster, for women who develop gestational diabetes (known to reduce supply): Take in recommended levels of calcium and vitamin D during pregnancy and afterward. That helps to keep blood sugar levels under control.
Mehmet Oz, M.D. is host of "The Dr. Oz Show," and Mike Roizen, M.D. is Chief Wellness Officer and Chair of Wellness Institute at Cleveland Clinic. Tune into "The Dr. Oz Show" or visit www.sharecare.com.