Researchers have shown that a child's health can be affected not just by the mother's health and lifestyle during pregnancy, but also before the child is conceived.
Not enough people in the UK are aware that a lack of preparation and planning for pregnancy affects the health of the pregnancy and future child.
A global series of three papers in the Lancet, published yesterday, says that women can to do more to improve their weight and nutrition before they get pregnant because potential mothers are risking more difficult pregnancies and poorer birth outcomes by failing to address their health before conception. Evidence suggests that smoking, high alcohol and caffeine intake and obesity before pregnancy all have an impact on the development of an unborn baby.
And it's not just related to lifestyle. Some of the interventions that are recommended to help pregnant women are taken up too late because the information doesn't get to them in time. Folic acid tablets reduce the risk of neural defects by 70% if they are taken daily in the months before conception, but many women are unaware of this and do not start to take it until they have seen a GP to confirm their pregnancy.
Lead author Prof Judith Stephenson of University College London said:
"The key message is to act earlier, before conception. The idea that there are things you can do before the pregnancy that will affect the health of the baby is not always grasped.
"The general view of most women is, ‘Once I’m pregnant I will go and see the GP and things will get going from there.'"
Researchers analysed data on 509 women aged 18 to 42 who took part in the UK National Diet and Nutrition Survey. Of the women in the 26 to 30-year-old age group surveyed - making up 19% of the total, not one of them was getting the recommended one microgram per day of vitamin B12, which is important for the healthy development of a baby's nervous system.
Professor Stephenson, said: "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.
"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."
Jane Brewin, Tommy's CEO, said:
"Tommy's aim is to reduce pregnancy loss and improving the health of the mother and child. Tommy's Pregnancy Information Service empowers women with information on how to reduce their risks during pregnancy.
We have been aware that reaching women with information in the period before conception is equally important to the health of the child, and that there is a big gap in provision.
That's why we are working with Public Health England, RCOG and Professor Stephenson on a brand new digital tool that will help women understand their risks and support them in making any changes that are necessary. This tool will be ready in a couple of months and it will be available for all to use."