Give Babies a Healthy Head Start

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There’s an old African American expression that says, "how you start out determines the way you’ll end up." These wise words provide us with a lesson for life during all its stages, but especially in the months before we are born. It’s hard to overemphasize the importance of prenatal care as a foundation for healthy growth and development. Black women who drink, smoke, use drugs and fail to get regular medical screenings during pregnancy may be giving their unborn children such a shaky start that repercussions can last a lifetime.

Inadequate or absent prenatal care can result in miscarriage, stillbirth, babies with low birth weight, malformation of vital organs, a host of birth defects or a developmental syndrome simply called "failure to thrive." If pregnant women also engage in harmful lifestyle choices, the outcomes can be even more devastating.

Prenatal care guards more than the health of the fetus. Pregnant women may be at risk for many health complications, some of them life–threatening. These include gestational diabetes – a type of diabetes that only occurs in pregnancy; increased blood pressure; toxemia; excessive weight gain; calcium and other important nutritional deficiencies, and more. Black women are at highest risk for all these complications.

Only a woman’s Obstetrician/Gynecologist can develop a customized health regimen to ensure a healthy pregnancy and safe birth. However, some general rules apply for all expectant mothers. First, regular medical screenings are a must. In the early months of pregnancy after an initial, comprehensive health assessment healthy women should have bi–monthly office or clinic visits and stay in telephone contact with their doctors if special circumstances arise. If pre–existing health conditions are present, more frequent office visits may be in order.

Second, observing the rules of good nutrition including a low–fat, low–carbohydrate diet accompanied by regular exercise is essential. Excessive weight gain can threaten every stage of pregnancy and compromise a safe delivery.

Third, vitamin and nutritional supplements are typically prescribed to bolster and preserve the delicate balance of a healthy body. Pregnant women are cautioned, however, to take vitamins and supplements only under the advice of their physician. Self –medicating can have lethal results.

The perils of smoking, drug and alcohol use during pregnancy are well known and dramatic. Not enough can be said about the tragedies that ensue from abusive lifestyle choices during this critical time in a woman’s life. Even casual or infrequent use of alcohol and drugs can profoundly impact the viability of the unborn.

African Americans, like other Americans, are challenged by the health care crisis in this country that has left millions of citizens without health insurance. But every community has programs to ensure that pregnant women can obtain vital prenatal services. If you are pregnant, or know someone who is, don’t let lack of health insurance prevent you from seeking the help and support you need. Go to your local public health facility and sign up for prenatal care.

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