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High-risk pregnancies: Who is at risk & how to prevent complications

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In a high-risk pregnancy, the life and health of mom, the baby, or both is threatened. For some women, pregnancy can be the most incredible, yet fearful experience in their lives. Discovering your pregnancy is considered high risk can be very scary.

Knowing your risk level for a difficult pregnancy can help you deal with any risk factors you may have before you are pregnant. While some risk factors are genetic and out of your control, others can be reduced, or at least controlled, before and during pregnancy.

Who is at risk?

The following factors increase your risk of a difficult pregnancy:

1. Existing health issues

Some health issues you have before you are pregnant may cause a more difficult pregnancy. These existing conditions can include high blood pressure or diabetes.

2. Age – Both young and old

Pregnant teens face an increased risk of developing high blood pressure during pregnancy. They are also at risk of anemia (not enough iron in your blood) and delivering the baby too soon. Similarly, first-time expecting mothers older than 35 are also more likely to suffer from pregnancy-induced high blood pressure.

Older women who become pregnant also face a higher risk for miscarriage, ectopic pregnancy, and gestational diabetes, among others.

3. Lifestyle choices

Alcohol, tobacco, or drug use during pregnancy can harmfully affect a baby’s health. These drugs dramatically increase the risk for miscarriage, stillbirth, and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Other risks to the baby if you use drugs during pregnancy include intellectual and developmental disabilities.

4. Underweight or overweight

Being underweight increases your risk for delivering too soon and the baby not weighing as much as he or she should. Being overweight or obese raises your odds of developing a variety of problems that can affect your health during, and after, pregnancy, as well as the baby’s health.

5. Multiple births

Pregnancy risks are higher for women carrying more than one baby at a time.

How to prevent complications

If you are pregnant, or even considering becoming pregnant, there are ways to avoid or reduce the likelihood of a high-risk pregnancy. Here are some suggestions from the SIU Medicine maternal fetal medicine team:

1. Stay active

Working out for 30 minutes on most days of the week can benefit your health, regardless of whether you are trying to get pregnant. Even exercising for 10 minutes at a time, to make 30 total minutes can be helpful. Staying active can reduce pregnancy-related back pain, bloating, swelling, and constipation.

Working out can also prevent or treat gestational diabetes. It enhances your mood, improves your energy, helps you sleep soundly, and improves your ability to deal with delivery as well. Walking, swimming, and squats are great, safe forms of exercise to engage in while pregnant.                  

2. Monitor your diet

During pregnancy, expecting mothers need to consume more folic acid, calcium, iron, and protein. Whole grains, beans, salmon, eggs and plain Greek yogurt are all great options. Taking a prenatal vitamin, even before you are pregnant, can help you get the vitamins you need. Reducing sugar in your food choices, such as donuts, cookies and ice cream, even if you crave them, can help reduce your chances of developing gestational diabetes.

3. See your doctor regularly

Prenatal visits with your healthcare providers help monitor both your health and your baby’s health. If you have a high-risk pregnancy, undergoing various tests or screenings that may be recommended by your healthcare provider, aside from routine prenatal exams, can also be beneficial. Examples of the extras for high-risk moms include specialized or targeted ultrasound, genetic counseling, amniocentesis and chorionic villus sampling (CVS).

4. Reduce stress

Stress and anxiety during pregnancy can contribute to early delivery, low birth weight and postpartum depression. Exercising, listening to music, and imagining pleasant experiences or focusing on objects are wonderful ways to decrease stress, and can help with delivery.

If you are trying to become pregnant, or think you might have a high-risk pregnancy, the team at SIU Medicine is here to help. Our maternal fetal medicine (MFM) team consults with your OB (a doctor who delivers babies) to maintain a continuity of care. While most expecting mothers are treated by their regular OB, they can be transferred to the MFM team in extreme cases. Our MFM team and OBs are all located together in our new building.

When faced with a high-risk pregnancy, knowledge is power. Remaining positive and working with your healthcare provider to reduce your risks can help you have the most successful outcome: a healthy mom and baby.

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