Pregnancy is an ideal time to start taking really good care of yourself both physically and emotionally. Your chances of having a problem-free pregnancy and a healthy baby will increase significantly if you follow a few simple guidelines:

1. Organise your antenatal care early

Good antenatal care is essential to your baby’s health, and choosing your carer early means you’ll have months to build a good relationship in preparation for the birth. Even if your choices are limited, you may be able to develop a rapport with one particular midwife or obstetrician you have met during the course of your pregnancy care.

2. Eat well

Although you don’t necessarily have to eat more when you are pregnant, it is important to eat a well-balanced and healthy diet. Many women go off certain foods, but it’s always possible to substitute those with others that provide similar nutritional value. Aim to eat a diet that includes some vegetables and fruit, some carbohydrates (preferably wholegrain), some protein — which might be fish, meat, eggs, nuts, or pulses — and some milk and dairy foods every day.

3. Be careful about food hygiene

It is better to avoid certain foods in pregnancy because they carry a health risk for your baby. Listeria, which can cause miscarriage or severe illness in newborns, can be caused by mould-ripened soft cheeses, such as Brie and Camembert, and blue-veined cheeses, such as Stilton. Hard cheeses, such as cheddar, and soft-processed cheeses, such as cottage cheese, Philadelphia and Boursin, are safe to eat. To avoid toxoplasmosis, which is rare, but can seriously affect an unborn baby, it is important to wear gloves when handling cat litter and garden soil, avoid eating undercooked or raw meat, and wash vegetables and salads thoroughly to remove any soil or dirt. Salmonella infections may be caused by undercooked poultry, and raw or soft-cooked eggs.

4. Take folic acid supplements

The only supplement that is considered truly vital is folic acid, which can help prevent spina bifida and other neural tube defects in babies. Spina bifida is a serious congenital condition. It occurs when the tube housing the central nervous system fails to close completely and may give rise to severe disabilities. All women planning a pregnancy are advised to take a daily supplement of 400mcg of folic acid starting before the time of conception through the first three months of pregnancy. You can also increase your intake of natural folate through your diet: it is found in many different foods, particularly vegetables and fortified breakfast cereals. Other nutrients that are important to your health and your baby’s are iron and calcium, which can generally be provided by your diet. Fish oils have also been found to have a beneficial effect on birth weight and on the development of brain and nerves in late pregnancy. Aim to eat oily fish such as herring, mackerel, salmon, or sardines two or three times a week. Alternatively, fish oil supplements are available (chose a brand free of the retinol form of Vitamin A).

5. Exercise regularly

A good exercise program can give you the strength and endurance you’ll need to carry the weight you gain during pregnancy and to handle the physical stress of labour. It will also make it much easier to get back into shape after your baby is born. Exercise can boost your spirits and help ward off the pregnancy blues — a recent study found that staying active can boost your level of serotonin, a brain chemical linked to mood. If you are used to taking exercise in the form of a sport, you can continue with this as long as it feels comfortable for you, unless your particular sport carries a risk of falls or knocks. More gentle exercise such as walking, swimming, aqua-aerobics, and yoga are also very beneficial.

6. Begin doing pelvic floor exercises

The ideal time of life to begin pelvic floor exercises is adolescence, but many women don’t hear about them until pregnancy. The pelvic floor muscles are the hammock of muscles at the base of your pelvis that support the bladder, vagina, and rectum. They can feel weaker than usual in pregnancy because of the extra pressure upon them, and because the hormones of pregnancy cause them to slacken slightly. They can be toned and strengthened by a daily exercise pattern. Find frequent times in the day — for instance, when you wash your hands, brush your teeth, or wait for the kettle to boil — when you can do 10 slow clenches of the pelvic floor muscles and 10 quick clenches. A physiotherapist, midwife or antenatal teacher can give more instruction on these exercises.

7. Limit your alcohol intake

Since any alcohol you drink rapidly reaches your baby via your blood stream and placenta, you may decide to cut it out completely, or at least to monitor the amount you consume. The current Australian Alcohol Guidelines for Low-Risk Drinking recommend that pregnant women consider not drinking at all, never become intoxicated, have less than seven standard drinks over a week and no more than two standard drinks on any one day (spread over at least two hours).

However, the guidelines are currently under review and the latest draft guidelines recommend that not drinking is the safest option.

The guidelines also state that the highest risk of causing Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders, which include Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), are in the earlier stages of pregnancy, including the time from conception to the first missed period.

Children born with FAS suffer from mental and growth retardation, behavioural problems, and facial and heart defects.

8. Cut back on caffeine

Coffee, tea, and cola-style beverages are mild stimulants, and although the research evidence is not clear, some researchers feel that too much caffeine may contribute to a risk of having a low-birthweight baby or a miscarriage. The current information suggests that you should have no more than 200mg of caffeine a day (equal to around two cups of instant coffee or tea, less for brewed coffee). As with alcohol, it’s best to err on the side of caution and you may prefer to drink water, decaffeinated coffee, tea, or fruit juices, instead. A refreshing alternative is a glass of mineral water with a twist of lime or lemon.

9. Stop smoking

Women who smoke increase their risk of miscarriage, premature delivery, stillbirth, and cot death. Some studies have shown that women who smoke 20 or more cigarettes a day during pregnancy are more likely to give birth to a baby with a cleft lip or palate. While it is best to give up smoking before you even try to conceive, any reduction in the number of cigarettes you smoke per day will give your baby a better chance. (Read more advice on how to quit smoking in pregnancy.

10. Get some rest

The fatigue you feel in the first and third trimesters is your body’s way of saying “slow down.” A nap in the middle of the day may seem like a luxury you can’t afford, but you and your baby will both benefit. If you can’t sleep, at least put your feet up and relax for 30 minutes or more, in whatever way suits you best. Relaxation techniques such as yoga, stretching, deep breathing, and massage are all effective in reducing stress and can help you get a better night’s sleep.