Let’s get the bad news out of the way first: In 2012, more than 11 percent of Hispanic births were preterm, making up about 23.2 percent of the preterm babies born in the US that year. Preterm birth can cause health problems such as low birth weight, breathing problems, underdeveloped organs and learning disorders for baby, and is a major contributor to infant mortality.
Don’t freak out too much about the mortality rate — yes, it’s slightly higher for Hispanic women than it is for non-Hispanic white women but it's mostly skewed that way “because we’re having more babies,” says Diana Ramos, MD, MPH, director for reproductive health for the Los Angeles County Public Health Department and assistant clinical professor at Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California. Hispanic women of childbearing age generally have the highest birth rate of all racial and ethic groups, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
Now, on to the good news: You can do something about all of this.
Keep up with your OB visits
Reducing your risk of preterm birth is important, and the most effective way to do that is to get prenatal medical care. “Begin care around 8 to 10 weeks, so you can have a first trimester screening and continue regular visits for the duration of the pregnancy,” says Kyoko Peña-Robles, MD MPH, ob-gyn at One Medical Group in San Francisco. That way, your doctor will have the best chance of detecting any problems or conditions early, and she can give you the treatments you need to manage them.
It sounds simple enough but the rate of having early prenatal care is lower for Hispanic women than it is for non-Hispanic white women.
Take a prenatal vitamin
The rate of neural tube defects — a type of birth defect affecting baby’s brain and spine — is going down in general in the US, but it’s higher for babies of Hispanic moms than it is for other groups.
This is why you should be popping a prenatal vitamin with at least 400 micrograms of folic acid every day. “Taking folic acid gets all the cells producing. That’s why your hair and nails tend to look so good when you’re taking a prenatal vitamin — every cell that’s dividing is supplementing from it,” Ramos explains. And that includes the development of baby’s brain and spine. Start as soon as you can, since folic acid is most effective in preventing neural tube defects when taken before conception and in the first two months of pregnancy, Peña-Robles says.
Eat lots of fruits and veggies
In addition to getting 400 micrograms of folic acid from your prenatal vitamin, you should also be getting 400 micrograms of it (either folic acid or folate, the natural form of it) from what you’re eating, says Sylvia Meléndez-Klinger, MS, registered dietician and founder of Hispanic Food Communications.
Folate comes from green, leafy vegetables, citrus fruits (tangerines, oranges and grapefruits) and some other foods like beans and avocados, so eat plenty of those.
Carbs? Go for variety
Yes, carbs are a good thing. In 1998, the FDA mandated that folic acid be added to enriched breads, cereals, rice noodles and some other grain products. You’ll know which ones have the extra folic acid because it will be marked as “enriched.” Thing is, _whole grain _products aren’t fortified, and some other products — for example, ones that are imported and some tortillas — might not be, says Melendez-Klinger.
The March of Dimes is working to try to have corn masa flour products fortified. Until then, eat a mix of enriched grains (for the folic acid) and whole grains (for the fiber and other good-for-you stuff).
Make your plate colorful
Melendez-Klinger simplifies healthy pregnancy eating: “Have a little bit of all different colors on your plate and enough nutrients from different food groups. For meals, include foods from at least three food groups on your plate. For snacks, have at least two different groups.”
Eating right will help you gain weight at a healthy rate and can reduce your risk of gestational diabetes and preeclampsia — Hispanic women are at higher risk for those conditions than non-Hispanic white women are, according to the March of Dimes. They both can cause preterm birth and can affect baby’s future health.
Aim for at least 40 minutes of exercise per day — and yes, walking counts, says Peña-Robles. Moms-to-be who work out tend to have lower blood pressure and a reduced risk of developing gestational diabetes or preeclampsia.
Quit smoking, drinking and drugs
We don’t mean cut back. Skipping cigarettes, alcohol and drugs — we're talking the recreational kind and the kind contraindicated during pregnancy — can cut baby’s risk of premature birth, low birth weight, birth defects and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).
Plan future pregnancies
Ramos emphasizes planning your pregnancies. This makes it more feasible for a woman to get to a healthy weight, start taking prenatal vitamins, and stop drinking, smoking and taking potentially harmful medications before she even becomes pregnant. Also, studies have shown that waiting at least 18 months between pregnancies can reduce risk of adverse outcomes.
Maintain healthy habits
Don’t ditch the healthy lifestyle after the baby’s born. “It’s important to understand that our health isn’t just going to affect us but also our babies’ health,” Ramos says. “Oftentimes, after a mom has her baby, she falls back into some unhealthy habits.” Keep eating right and exercising long past pregnancy — so you’ll have energy to keep up with baby and set a good example for your child.
“If you’re eating healthy food, they’re going to follow your lead,” says Melendez-Klinger. “It’s kind of like what they say on a plane: You have to take care of yourself first before you can take care of others.”
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