Possible Consequences of Poor Prenatal Nutrition

A reality check about how nutrition affects your unborn child

You are what you eat – and so is your baby! Over the years, I’ve learned that some women have a hard time adopting a regimen of good prenatal nutrition. They know they should eat well, they know a balanced diet does not mean varying the flavors of the chips they eat and the sodas they drink, but it’s hard. It’s hard to change eating habits, or to not give in to cravings, or to not feel guilty for those little indulgences. Sometimes it’s just easier not to think about nutrition at all.

Unfortunately, however, there can be real consequences if moms do not take good nutritional care of their bodies and babies and midwives and doctors see these outcomes regularly. I do not expect my students to strive for perfection in their diet, only to be conscious of the nutritional choices they make for themselves and their family and to try to achieve balance and moderation. I hope the following information will help you to do the same.

  • Poor prenatal nutrition will affect the placenta, the fascinating and complex organ that sustains your baby’s life in the womb. A placenta that is friable (easily damaged) and shows calcifications may not have been functioning at full potential, meaning your baby may not have received ideal supplies of oxygen or nourishment in utero. A very friable placenta may come apart before it is expelled, and even a small piece of retained placenta can lead to postpartum hemorrhage. This blood loss can cause fatigue, light-headedness, palpitations and confusion, among other more serious things, and for out-of-hospital birthers may result in a transfer to the hospital for a D&C and blood transfusion, all of which in turn affects mom’s recovery, postpartum bonding with baby and breastfeeding relationship. Good nutrition helps to grow a strong and healthy placenta.

  • Inadequate nourishment can lead to mom’s perineum not being as flexible and elastic as it needs to be for labor, which can result in the birth of an average or even small-sized baby causing significant tears. These tears need to be repaired, requiring local anaesthetic and causing a certain degree of discomfort for most women during the repair and healing process. Third and fourth degree tears require repairs by a surgeon so out-of-hospital birthers would need transfer to the hospital for this procedure and must consider the disruption to the family bonding process that that entails. (A third-degree laceration is a tear in the vaginal tissue, perineal skin, and perineal muscles that extends into the anal sphincter (the muscle that surrounds your anus). A fourth-degree tear goes through the anal sphincter and the tissue underneath it.)

  • Poor nourishment can lead to amniotic membranes rupturing before baby is ready to be born. Ruptured membranes put you on a clock and if labor does not begin or you are not in active labor within 12-24 hours (depending on your care provider’s protocol), you will need to go to the hospital for labor induction or augmentation, which means you need to stay in bed, monitored, to see how baby tolerates the drugs. As we know, one intervention often leads to another….

  • If labor begins weeks or months before your due date (preterm labor), your baby misses out on the many benefits of being in the womb in late pregnancy, when key brain development, healthy weight gain, and organ function refinement take place. Again, good nutrition can help prevent preterm labor.

  • Potential complications from poor nutrition for mom include gestational diabetes, placental abruption, high blood pressure and toxemia or pre-eclampsia, which is a serious life-threatening condition that can result in high blood pressure, convulsions and even death. The only cure is to get the baby out. This is preventable with good nourishment.

  • Babies may look “fine” and even adorable at birth, but if they have been deprived of the full range of the vital nourishment they needed in utero, they have a greater chance of having developmental delays or physical and/or neurological disabilities. They may be small for their gestational age or be low birth weight babies, factors which may also affect the breastfeeding relationship. The nutritional start your baby gets in life sets up their digestive tract with the gut flora that is so key to their immune systems and will impact their health and well-being for life.

  • Poor nutrition increases your chances of pregnancy discomforts such as morning sickness, constipation, fatigue, muscle cramps and heartburn. It can also result in poor healing from the birth process, which leads to a longer recovery period and increased risk of infection.

  • Poor food choices during pregnancy and lactation can lead to our children having sub-optimal food preferences as they grow. What we eat flavors our amniotic fluid and breastmilk and our babies develop a preference for the flavors they have become accustomed to in utero and while breastfeeding. How amazing is that? If you want a child who grows up enjoying a wide variety of healthy foods, start now! Your food choices in pregnancy and lactation can affect your children’s food choices for a lifetime.

  • Some studies indicate that poor nutrition in pregnancy may lead to obesity in the child later. Your food choices in pregnancy can affect how your child’s body will handle nutrients and calories in the future. Foods you eat now will matter for a very long time.

  • If you are carrying a girl, she will be born with all the eggs she’ll ever have. This means that your nutritional choices now could affect not just your child, but your grandchildren as well. Now that’s food for thought! Framing your food choices in this multi-generational perspective may make it easier for you to make better choices.

Remember, your nutritional needs change when you’re pregnant and what you needed or lived on before is likely not enough now. You want your child to thrive! You and only you have control over how you choose to nourish yourself and your baby, and this will directly affect how your labor, birth and postpartum period will go.

No one can tell you what to do, but your care providers and childbirth educator can help guide you toward making better choices. Talk to them or ask to speak with a nutritionist if you need help with your diet – it’s never too late to start making better choices!

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