What to eat before, during and after pregnancy
Expert nutrition tips for new mums and mums-to-be
It’s never more important to eat well than when trying to get pregnant, when you are pregnant and when breastfeeding.
The first 500 days of a child’s life (from their conception in the womb until six months after they’re born) are the most important and vulnerable period of their lives.
During this time, a baby is entirely dependent on their mother for good nutrition. This means that looking after yourself and eating well during this period will go a long way in giving your child the best start in life.
But with rising food prices across South Asia, it's become even harder to eat healthy. Many women have told us they don’t know where to start, or what information to trust.
We spoke with nutrition and health experts at UNICEF South Asia to answer questions from mums-to-be and new mums on the best things to eat to have a healthy pregnancy.
“What should I eat when trying to get pregnant?”
Before you get pregnant, it’s important to eat well to prepare your body for pregnancy — and increase your chances of a healthy pregnancy.
If you’re an unhealthy weight, it can get in the way of conceiving. When trying to get pregnant, it’s best to eat healthy and keep an active lifestyle.
Eat regular, wholesome, home-cooked meals (3 meals a day with a light snack in between) and 3 to 5 servings of fruits and vegetables each day.
Focus on eating wholegrain foods (whole wheat flour chapati, whole wheat bread, brown rice and oats), foods that are rich in protein (eggs, fish, chicken, lentils and soya) and folate (green leafy vegetables). These can help improve your health.
Use double fortified salt - a type of table salt with added iron and iodine - when cooking.
Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are also good foods to eat when trying to get pregnant. These healthy, unsaturated fats can be found in safflower oil, sunflower oil, corn oil, soybean oil, sunflower seeds, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, flaxseeds and chia seeds.
Lastly, as iron is important to your health during pregnancy, it’s recommended that women who are trying to get pregnant start taking Iron and Folic Acid (IFA) tablets. Speak to your health worker for more information on supplements.
“What shouldn’t I eat when trying to get pregnant?”
Avoid ultra-processed foods that are high in fat, salt and sugar. These foods are not good for your health.
Limit the amount of trans-fat (bad fat) you’re eating. Trans-fat can be found in pastries, biscuits, cakes and chips.
Try to avoid food that contains lots of saturated fats and very high cholesterol. This includes butter, ghee, margarine, spreads, fatty meat, egg yolk and processed meat products like sausages. Avoid foods that can contain harmful bacteria like raw or undercooked animal products (meat, fish, eggs) and unpasteurized milk.
Try to avoid skipping breakfast, late meals and snacking on fatty foods. Reduce the amount of tea and coffee you drink. If you currently smoke, get support to help you quit.
“What should I eat when I’m pregnant?”
To grow a healthy baby, you need rest, a clean environment, pregnancy healthcare, and a healthy, nutritious diet.
When you’re pregnant, your body needs more nutrients than normal to support you and the growth of your baby.
If you don’t get enough nutritious food during your pregnancy, your baby could be born malnourished, which can have long term consequences for their health and development. Diets lacking in key nutrients – like iodine, iron, folate, calcium and zinc – can also lead to anaemia and pregnancy complications such as pre-eclampsia in mothers.
To give your baby the best start in the womb, we recommend you eat three home-cooked main meals a day, plus one or two nutritious snacks. There should be variety of food items in your diet to help you get all the nutrients you and your baby need.
We recommend that you eat at least one food item from all the listed food groups below every day with millet roti or rice:
Meat and animal products:
Fresh, dark green leafy vegetables:
Yellow or orange pulpy fruits and vegetables:
Use double fortified salt:
It’s best to use double fortified salt in all your cooking when pregnant. Double fortified salt is a type of table salt with added iron and iodine. It can help you overcome iron deficiency and helps your baby develop.
It’s important to store double fortified salt in an airtight container, away from heat and humidity.
“Are there certain foods I should eat at different times in my pregnancy?”
Yes! Eating more of certain foods at different points in your pregnancy also helps your baby develop:
Your baby’s brain and spinal cord are developing. To help, eat more foods that are rich in folate. This includes:
Leafy vegetables like turnip greens, spinach, romaine lettuce, asparagus, Brussels sprouts and broccoli.
Your baby's bones are hardening. To help, eat foods that are:
Rich in calcium: Some of the best sources of calcium are dairy foods like milk, cheese, and yogurt. Ragi and sesame seeds are also good options.
Rich in folate: Some of the best sources of folate are leafy vegetables like turnip greens, spinach, romaine lettuce, asparagus, Brussels sprouts and broccoli.
Your baby's bones are continuing to harden. Their teeth are beginning to form.
Calcium-rich foods: Like milk, cheese, yogurt, ragi and sesame seeds.
Foods rich in folate: Including leafy vegetables like turnip greens, spinach, romaine lettuce, asparagus, Brussels sprouts and broccoli.
Your baby is rapidly increasing in size. Their bones and teeth are becoming denser, and their blood has begun to circulate.
Make sure you’re eating:
Foods rich in iron and folic acid: Leafy vegetables like amaranth leaves, fenugreek leaves, mint leaves and drumstick leaves.
Iron-rich nuts and oilseeds: White sesame seeds and grey niger seeds.
Lean meat, eggs, fish and lentils and soya if you are vegetarian.
Foods rich in Vitamin C: Like guava, amla, oranges, lemons and sprouted grains/pulses.
Foods rich in calcium: Like milk, paneer and curd.
Your baby is growing rapidly, and their muscles and skin are forming.
Make sure you’re eating foods that are rich in energy and protein, including:
Wheat flour, coarse grains, rice, maize and pulses/lentils.
Sweet potato, banana and jaggery (natural sugar).
Milk, skimmed milk powder and cottage cheese.
Lentils, soya, eggs, chicken and fish.
Nuts and oilseeds. (These can be powdered and added to food.)
Your baby’s eyes are developing. Help them grow by eating foods rich in Vitamin A, including:
Green leafy vegetables: Like drumstick leaves and fenugreek leaves.
Yellow and orange fruits and vegetables: Like papaya, tomato, musk melon, carrot, sweet potato and pumpkin.
Also make sure you’re eating good sources of protein like lentils, soya, milk products, eggs and goat liver.
Your baby’s brain and vision are rapidly developing. They need ‘good fat’ to help them grow.
‘Good fat’ can be found in nuts, oilseeds, fish and a variety of cooking oils (mustard oil, groundnut oil, soybean oil and coconut oil).
Avoid ‘bad fat’ like vanaspati, margarine and reused oil.
Months 8 and 9
Your baby is gaining more weight and their brain and lungs are continuing to develop.
Eat foods that are dense in energy during this time:
Cereals: Wheat, rice, jowar, ragi and bajra.
Pulses: Green gram, Bengal gram and soya beans.
Milk and milk products.
Cooking oils: Mustard oil, soyabean oil, groundnut oil and coconut oil.
Nuts and oilseeds: Sesame seeds, groundnuts, flax seeds and jaggery.
>> This recipe book especially for pregnant women may be useful
“What are the cheapest ways to eat well during pregnancy?”
Whenever possible try to get locally grown vegetables and fruits, especially when they are in season. These can be less expensive. They also include more nutrients and are fresher and safer from contamination.
“How much food should I be eating if I’m feeling sick when pregnant?”
It’s normal to feel sick and experience vomiting in the first weeks of your pregnancy. It’s also common to get a sour or metallic taste in your mouth. Both can make you lose interest in eating.
Even though it’s difficult, it’s still important to try to eat three meals a day (even if they’re smaller), and one nutritious snack, to help your baby grow.
Squeezing a lemon on your food can improve the taste and help you digest it better. Ginger can also help calm nausea.
“Which women need to eat more during pregnancy?”
If you are short, young, thin, obese or anaemic when you’re pregnant, there’s a higher risk your baby will be too. This could have long term consequences for your baby and make pregnancy riskier for you.
This includes if you:
Are shorter than 145cm.
Are 20 years old or younger.
Have gained less than 1kg of weight per month after the first trimester of your pregnancy.
Have gained more than 3kg per month in the first trimester of your pregnancy.
If this is you, be sure to take care of yourself, eat healthy and get even more vitamins and nutrients. Speak to a health worker for individual nutrition and supplement advice.
>> This recipe book includes a section especially for pregnant women with anaemia
“Should I be taking any supplements when pregnant or trying to get pregnant?”
Yes! Taking certain supplements before and when you’re pregnant helps your baby grow. They also help keep your body healthy during pregnancy and help it recover after you give birth.
Iron and Folic Acid tablets
It’s important to take Iron and Folic Acid (IFA) supplements before, during and after pregnancy.
IFA tablets protect you against anaemia, help your baby develop and reduce your baby’s chances of being born early or underweight.
The dose of tablets you should take depends on:
How long you have been pregnant.
If you have anaemia.
Anaemia is a condition that develops when you don’t get enough nutrients in your diet, especially iron. If you have anaemia, it’s important to improve the iron in your body before and during pregnancy by eating iron-rich food and supplements.
You can have anaemia and not realise it. Anaemia can make you feel tired, weak, dizzy and short of breath. You may also get headaches and experience an irregular heartbeat. If you have any of these symptoms speak to a health worker, who can test you for anaemia and advise on the best treatment.
Multiple Micronutrient Supplements
In some counties, if you’re malnourished when you’re pregnant and breastfeeding, you may be offered Multiple Micronutrient Supplements (MMS) instead of IFA tablets.
MMS have been shown to have great nutritional benefits for anaemic and underweight pregnant and breastfeeding mothers, but they’re not yet available in every country in South Asia.
Speak to your health worker for more information on your nutrition levels and the supplements available to you.
Taking calcium tablets helps reduce your risk of developing pre-eclampsia and high blood pressure and experiencing convulsions during pregnancy and birth. Calcium is also vital for growing your baby's bones and teeth.
Speak to a health worker for more information about taking calcium tablets when you’re pregnant.
You’ll need to take a single dose of a deworming tablet in the first trimester of your pregnancy. This will be given to you by a health worker.
If you have a worm infestation when you’re pregnant, it stops you from absorbing nutrients properly, which can cause anaemia. Taking a deworming tablet helps treat and prevent any intestinal worm infestations that you can get from soil on food.
“What happens if I don’t take IFA and calcium supplements during my pregnancy?”
Getting enough nutrients and vitamins when you’re pregnant is important for you and your baby.
If you don’t get enough folic acid before and during pregnancy, it could affect the development of your baby’s spine and brain. If you don’t get enough iron, you can become anaemic, which can be dangerous for you both.
Check with your health worker if you’re not sure about the supplements that you should be taking.
“Where can I get the supplements that I need during pregnancy?”
IFA and calcium tablets are freely available at government health centers. You could also get them from your community health worker.
“What shouldn’t I eat when I’m pregnant?”
When you’re pregnant, your baby receives all their nutrients and oxygen through you. But harmful substances, like alcohol and tobacco, can pass from you to your baby too — and cause them harm.
That’s why it’s important to reduce, or completely avoid, certain foods and substances when you’re pregnant:
Reduce your caffeine
Caffeine is a stimulant found in tea, coffee, cola-type soft drinks, chocolate, and some over-the-counter medicines. Getting too much caffeine when you’re pregnant increases your risk of miscarriage and preterm birth.
Limit your consumption of tea and coffee to a maximum of 2 cups a day.
Wait 2 hours after eating a meal before drinking tea or coffee.
Avoid soft, cold, fizzy drinks.
Limit your chocolate.
Limit the sugar, fat and salt you eat and drink
Reducing sugar, fat and salt can lower your risk of obesity, heart disease, strokes, diabetes and some cancers.
Avoid smoking and chewing tobacco completely
Tobacco increases your risk of pregnancy complications and miscarriage.
Avoid all forms of tobacco when you’re pregnant (including beedi, cigarettes, vapes, e-cigarettes, and gutka).
Members of your household should also avoid smoking or do so outside.
Drinking excessive alcohol when you’re pregnant can harm your baby’s physical and mental development. It also increases the risk of miscarriage and early birth.
Restrict alcohol when you’re pregnant.
Better still, avoid it all together.
Keep food safe
Avoid foods that can contain harmful bacteria. This includes raw or undercooked animal products and unpasteurized milk.
> Check canned and packaged food for damage like dents, leaks, rust and bulges. If there’s any damage, steer clear.
> Don’t use foods that are past their date of expiry or best before date.
> If food seems spoiled, including a foul smell or colour change, or you’re in doubt, it’s best to throw it away.
Cook food hygienically:
> Wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds before eating, cooking and handling food.
> Always use clean water, utensils and plates.
> Wash unpackaged produce like fruit and vegetables well, under running water.
> Use separate chopping boards for uncooked meat and fish.
Always cook your food to the recommended temperature:
> Don’t undercook your food. This can be dangerous.
> Don’t overcook your food. This reduces the nutrients.
Keep cooking areas clean:
> Recycle, or dispose of, food waste and packaging in closed dustbins.
> Don’t let food waste or rubbish build up. This could attract pests.
“What else can I do when I’m pregnant to help my baby?”
There are lots of things you can do when pregnant to help your baby develop and boost both your health and well-being:
Stay active: Do at least 20 to 25 minutes of light exercise, brisk walking or yoga every day.
Get some sun: Sunlight helps your body manufacture Vitamin D, which is essential for your baby’s bone development. Aim to get 30 minutes to an hour of sun exposure a day (between 9am and 1pm).
Sleep well: If possible, get 2 hours of sleep during the day and sleep for 8 hours at night. (Sleeping less than 6 hours is linked to preterm birth.)
Sleep on your left side. This helps improve blood flow to your baby.
Avoid lifting heavy loads, work that requires you to stand for a long time and working more than 46 hours a week. These can all harm your baby’s growth and are linked to preterm birth and low birth weight.
Create an atmosphere of peace and affection in the home: Your baby is sensitive to their external environment from the moment they’re conceived and receptive to external sounds from around 14 weeks.
Protect your mental health: It’s important that you're not under any mental or physical stress when you’re pregnant and that your family helps shield you from it.
Get vaccinated against COVID-19, including booster doses: Pregnant women have a higher risk of getting severely ill from COVID-19 and vaccination helps keep them safe.
>> More information on COVID-19 and safe pregnancy
It’s also important to look after your personal cleanliness by:
Rinsing your mouth after every meal.
Brushing your teeth twice a day.
Washing your hair and cutting your nails.
Cleaning your private parts daily. (Cleaning from front to back.)
Wearing slippers to protect your feet.
Washing your hands with soap and clean water as follows:
> Before cooking food.
> Before and after eating meals.
> Before feeding children.
> After using the toilet.
> After cleaning children's faeces.
> After handling any animal or cleaning its faeces.
> After cleaning the house or disposing of garbage.
> After returning home from being out.
“When should I start breastfeeding my baby?”
When your baby is born, breastfeed them as soon as possible — within 1 hour of their birth.
Breastmilk is a complete food. Your baby should not be given any other liquid apart from breastmilk, not even water, until they are six months old.
Your first milk will be thick and yellow in colour. This milk is known as ‘colostrum’. It’s full of nutrients, antibodies and antioxidants to help build your baby’s immune system and protect them from diseases. Feed it to your baby.
Colostrum changes to breastmilk two to four days after your baby is born.
“What should I eat when breastfeeding?”
Through your breastmilk, your baby eats everything you eat. This means that the best way to give your baby a healthy diet, is to eat a healthy diet yourself.
Make sure you’re eating home-prepared food that is rich in proteins. This can include meat, poultry, fish, eggs, milk and milk products, beans, nuts and seeds — depending on your dietary preferences. Eat lots of seasonal fruits and vegetables, and cereals like wheat, maize and oats. Drink a lot of water.
You can also eat galactagogues. Galactagogues are traditional food items that stimulate breastmilk production and secretion. Galactagogues include cumin, aniseeds, carom seeds and garlic (which can be used as seasoning), fennel seeds, fenugreek in vegetable pulao, nuts, edible gum and ginger (which can be used in tea).
>> What new parents need to know about breastfeeding
“Is there any financial support I can get to help me feed myself and my baby?”
Women across South Asia are entitled to social protection through government programmes.
Different governments set their own policies for maternity benefits and maternity leave. There are also nutrition programmes running in some areas that provide food, supplements and support for pregnant women and new mums.
However, the reach of these programmes remains limited. Ask your health worker about the benefits and nutrition services that are available near you. They may also be able to help you access them.
“I want to have another child. When is best to start trying?”
It’s best to space out the time between giving birth by at least 3 years. This time allows you to restore your health and helps avoid malnutrition in children that can happen with repeated pregnancies.
Discuss with your spouse and opt for a suitable family planning method after delivery.
Family planning methods are available free of cost at any public health facility in South Asia.