Maternal and Infant Nutrition (Lesson 18)

Karen Overstreet, Roy, Heli J., Reames, Elizabeth S.


Pregnancy and motherhood are such exciting times in a woman's life! Most women want to do everything they possibly can to ensure that the new baby is happy and healthy. Some aspects of a baby's health can be determined just by the mother's diet. It is so important for a pregnant woman to maintain her health and to eat a nutritious diet for herself and her baby.

What You Will Learn

  • The importance of early and continuous prenatal care
  • How much weight you should gain during pregnancy
  • How to decrease the chance of having a low-birthweight baby
  • What is a healthy pregnancy diet
  • The dangers of smoking, drinking alcohol and using drugs to an unborn baby
  • The advantages of breastfeeding

All of these factors work together to help ensure that a baby will be born healthy, and they guard against many physical, mental, psychological and emotional problems.

Go for a Healthy Pregnancy!

MyPlate Review is a practical guide to choosing healthful, low-fat foods each day. It is a tool that helps us select what foods to eat and how much to eat each day to be healthy. We need to eat a variety of foods from each of the food groups, and we need to eat in moderation by eating the recommended serving sizes. can also help guide women who are pregnant or breastfeeding or women of childbearing age to get the proper nutrition for herself and her baby.

It is a mother's job to do everything she can to make sure her infant has a healthy start in life. The mother is one of the most important factors in determining the outcome of her pregnancy. As soon as a woman thinks she may be pregnant, it is important that she see a doctor. Beginning a regular medical care program as early as possible in a pregnancy is the best way to ensure a healthy baby.

The first few weeks of the pregnancy are especially important. All of the baby's organs are formed by day 58 (week nine). Several parts of the baby are formed before a woman even knows she is pregnant! Therefore, it is even important for women who are of childbearing age who aren't pregnant to maintain good health and see a doctor for regular checkups.

Proper weight gain is vital to a baby's growth and development. Organs such as the brain, heart and lungs can all be affected by maternal weight gain. If a woman is at a healthy weight before pregnancy, she should gain 25 to 35 pounds. An underweight woman should gain at least 28 to 40 pounds. Even an overweight woman should gain at least 15 to 25 pounds. During the first three months of pregnancy, a woman should gain two to five pounds. After that, she should gain about one pound per week throughout her pregnancy.

Eating the right types of foods is necessary so that mother and baby receive the nutrients they need. provides a list of the recommended food groups and serving sizes to meet nutrient needs. The food groups include:

  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Grains
  • Protein foods
  • Dairy

MyPlate provides the recommended nutrients established by the Institute of Medicine’s Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs). The DRIs are the nutrients recommended for humans, such as vitamin C, protein, calcium, etc., and the amounts they should consume at different ages and life stages, such as pregnancy and lactation. The DRIs include the Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA) and the Adequate Intakes (AI). For additional information about the DRIs for pregnancy and lactation, contact an Extension nutrition specialist, Extension agent specializing in nutrition or registered dietitian. Though it’s possible to meet the requirements for most nutrients through a balanced diet, most experts recommend pregnant women take a daily vitamin/mineral supplement as a safeguard.

The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans contain key recommendations for specific population groups, such as women who are of childbearing age, pregnant women, and women who are breastfeeding. They include:

  • Women of childbearing age who may become pregnant:  Eat foods high in heme-iron and /or consume iron-rich plant foods or iron-fortified foods with an enhancer of iron absorption, such as foods rich in vitamin C.
  • Women of childbearing age who may become pregnant and those in the first trimester of pregnancy: Consume 400 mcg per day synthetic folic acid daily (from fortified foods or supplements) in addition to food forms of folate from a varied diet.
  • Pregnant women: Ensure appropriate weight gain as specified by health care provider.
  • Pregnant or breastfeeding women: Due to their high methyl mercury content, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency are advising women of childbearing age who may become pregnant, pregnant women, nursing mothers and young children to avoid some types of fish and shellfish and eat fish and shellfish that are lower in mercury.  Limit white (albacore) tuna to 6 oz per week and do not eat the following four types of fish: tilefish, shark, swordfish, and king mackerel.  Otherwise, it is safe to consume 8-12 oz of seafood per week from various seafood sources.  For more information, call the FDA food information toll-free line, 1-888-SAFEFOOD.
  • Breastfeeding women: Moderate weight reduction is safe while breastfeeding and does not compromise weight gain of the nursing infant.
  • Pregnant women: In the absence of medical or obstetric complications, incorporate 30 minutes or more of moderate-intensity physical activity on most, if not all, days of the week. Avoid activities with a high risk of falling or abdominal trauma.
  • Breastfeeding women: Be aware that neither acute nor regular exercise adversely affects the mother’s ability to successfully breastfeed.
  • Infants and young children, pregnant women, older adults, and those whose immune system is compromised:  Do not eat or drink raw unpasteurized milk, raw or partially cooked eggs or foods containing raw eggs, raw or undercooked meat and poultry, raw or undercooked fish or shellfish, unpasteurized juices, and raw sprouts.
  • Pregnant women, older adults, and those whose immune system is compromised:  These individuals are at higher risk of developing listeriosis, a potentially life-threatening illness caused by the bacterium Listeria monocytogenes. Some deli meats and frankfurters that have not been reheated to steaming hot and some ready-to-eat foods are associated with listeriosis and pose a high-risk to certain individuals. All these foods should be heated to a safe internal temperature.  
  • Alcoholic beverages should not be consumed by some individuals, including those who cannot restrict their alcohol intake, women of childbearing age who may become pregnant, pregnant and lactating women, children and adolescents, individuals taking medications that can interact with alcohol, and those with specific medical conditions.

Other concerns of pregnancy include the awareness that the mother-to-be’s use of certain substances, such as tobacco (smoking and second-hand smoke), illegal drugs, and some prescription and over-the-counter medications that are harmful to babies. Human studies support the conclusion that low to moderate consumption of caffeine by pregnant women may increase the risk of miscarriage or preterm delivery. The March of Dimes International Food Information Council suggests a reasonable guideline for daily intake of caffeine up to 300 mg caffeine per day. The doctor may recommend limiting caffeine and other substances.

Prenatal Weight Gain

Why Gain Weight?

There are three times in a woman's life when she gains weight faster than at any other time: infancy, adolescence, and pregnancy. Babies usually triple their birth weight in one year. During the teen years, as a child becomes an adult, she gains weight. During pregnancy, the usual weight gain is between 25-35 pounds for the baby and mother in only nine months. A general guide to weight gain during pregnancy is:

Gain 25-35 pounds if normal weight before pregnancy.

Gain 28-40 pounds if underweight before pregnancy.

Gain 15-25 pounds if overweight before pregnancy.

A slow, steady weight gain is important. During the first three months, a weight gain of two to four pounds is enough. From the fourth month until the baby is born, it's best to gain about one pound a week. Visiting the doctor regularly during pregnancy can help a woman keep track of her weight gain. The doctor will decide if weight gain is too fast, too slow, or right on target.

Gaining the amount of weight recommended by the doctor is important to a baby's health. The healthiest babies usually weigh seven to eight pounds. Babies who weigh five and one-half pounds or less at birth are not as healthy. Low-birth-weight babies have a greater chance of dying before age one. They also have more problems as children and adults. These problems can include behavioral problems, trouble in school, illness, and other physical, psychological, or emotional problems.

Where Does the Weight Go?

A mother's weight gain of 30 pounds is distributed as follows:

Breast increase: 1-2 pounds

Blood increase: 3-4 pounds

Extra tissue: 8-10 pounds

Body Fluid: 3-4 pounds

Uterus increase: 1-2 pounds

Placenta: 1-2 pounds

Amniotic fluid: 2-3 pounds

Baby: 7-8 pounds

If a woman gains the amount of weight the doctor recommends, she will probably get back to her pre-pregnancy weight about three to six months after the baby is born. Eating the right amount of food and getting enough exercise will help a woman get back to her original weight. If a woman is gaining weight too fast or too slowly, the doctor or nurse will discuss it with her. If weight gain is too fast, this may be caused by fluid. Eating too many foods that are high in fat and/or sugar, such as cakes, candy, cookies, chips, and fried foods, may also be the problem. Soft drinks are high in calories (and caffeine) and should be limited. If weight gain is too slow, eating foods from the following food groups will help:

  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Grains
  • Protein foods
  • Milk

Go to to get more information on healthful foods in each food group.


Exercise is important during pregnancy. Exercise improves muscle tone, heart health, bone density, and lung capacity and helps a woman feel better during and after pregnancy. It is recommended that in the absence of medical or obstetric complications, pregnant women should incorporate 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) each week of moderate-intensity physical activity, such as brisk walking. Avoid activities with a high risk of falling or abdominal trauma, such as contacts sports, horseback riding, or soccer. 

A pregnant woman should discuss the types of physical activity that are safe during pregnancy with her doctor, even if she was active before becoming pregnant. Some exercise tips for exercising during pregnancy are:

  • Start very slowly and be careful not to over exert if starting a new exercise program.  Increase the amount of exercise gradually over time.  Try mild exercise, like walking, swimming, low-impact aerobics, or riding a stationary bike. 
  • Exercise regularly (30 minutes per day or 10 minutes three times a day on most, if not all, days of the week).
  • Warm up before exercise and cool down after.
  • Exercise at the coolest time of the day and avoid exercising in extremely hot weather.
  • Wear clothing and shoes that are comfortable and give support.
  • Drink plenty of liquids and take frequent breaks.
  • Exercise only to the point where you begin to get tired. You should be able to talk easily while exercising. If you're out of breath, you're working too hard.

*A pregnant woman should always check with her doctor before beginning an exercise program. 

Advantages of Breastfeeding

Advantages of breastfeeding include:

  1. A mother's breast milk is the perfect food for babies.

    Human milk is nature's perfect design for helping the baby's body and brain grow and develop. No formula can be made exactly the same as human milk because we do not know all its ingredients.

    Babies can digest breast milk easily. A diet of breast milk produces loose bowel movements that a baby can easily pass. Constipation is rare in breastfed infants.

    The only food the infant needs for about 6 months is breast milk. After the baby starts eating solid foods, the mother should continue breastfeeding until her child is a year old or even older.
  2. Breastfeeding protects the baby from sickness.

    Breastfeeding helps protect the baby from illnesses including diarrhea, ear infections, pneumonia, and serious illnesses.

    Breastfeeding improves the baby's chances of remaining healthy.
  3. Nursing is a valuable source of security and comfort for the baby.

    Mom and baby give comfort to each other. The baby needs the mother's breast milk and physical closeness, and the full breasts need to be emptied. Breastfeeding develops an intimate relationship that can deepen the bond between mother and baby.
  4. Breastfed babies have fewer allergies.

    Babies who are breastfed are less likely to have skin problems and asthma than babies who are fed formula.

2/5/2010 2:24:34 AM
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