Testing for pregnancy is easy to do using home pregnancy kits, which give results that are about 99 per cent accurate.
Female hormones cause the growth and release of eggs for fertilisation during the women's reproductive cycle. Once an egg has been fertilised by sperm, a chemical appears in the urine - called ‘human chorionic gonadotrophin' (hCG). Home pregnancy kits test for the presence of this chemical.
- A woman is most fertile around ovulation, which usually occurs mid-cycle
- The egg can only be fertilised for around 12-24 hours after ovulation, but sperm can live for up to five days - and a woman may therefore conceive if intercourse takes place up to five days before ovulation, and for 24 hours afterwards
- On average it takes couples more than six months to conceive, while one in six couples takes more than one year. Conception can take longer in women aged over 35, or in women who smoke.
Early signs of pregnancy
Breast changes, such as fullness and tenderness, are often the first signs of pregnancy; the nipples also enlarge as the pregnancy develops.
Shorter, lighter bleeding may occur early during pregnancy in some women, and sometimes when their period is due.
Women should see their doctor if:
- They are trying to become pregnant, in order to discuss diet and other health issues
- They are taking regular medicines and are pregnant, or trying to become pregnant
- They have missed a period but have had negative pregnancy tests
- They have had a positive pregnancy test, but have not yet seen a doctor
- Abdominal pain is causing prioblems or they have developed period problems, such as heavy bleeding
- They have had unprotected sex and are worried about becoming pregnant
Women over 16 years can buy the emergency contraceptive or ‘morning after' pill from a pharmacy.
Home tests are also available to check when eggs are released from the ovaries (ovulation) - this is the time when a woman is most fertile. Ovulation is controlled by another hormone called luteinising hormone (LH) - LH levels rise about 24-36 hours before ovulation. Home ovulation tests measure LH in the urine, indicating when a woman may be most fertile.
Nutritional supplements for pregnancy
Women who are planning to become pregnant, should take a folic acid supplement (400micrograms daily) for at least one month before getting pregnant and for the first three months of pregnancy. This aids the baby's development and helps prevent neural tube defects, such as spina bifida.
A normal, healthy diet should provide all the vitamins and minerals needed in pregnancy, but there is usually no harm in taking supplements containing calcium, iron and zinc.
Check with a pharmacist or doctor for individualised advice about nutritional supplements for pregnancy.
Planning for pregnancy
Some women who wish to start a family may need a rubella (German measles) vaccination. Even those who have been vaccinated should check they are still protected before becoming pregnant.
A well-balanced diet can provide a pregnant woman and her unborn baby with most nutrients needed, but extra folic acid is advised before getting pregnant and during the first three months (see above under Nutritional supplements for pregnancy)
Listeria is a dangerous infection for pregnant women and unborn babies, and can be caused by bacteria in some fresh or unprocessed foods, such as soft cheeses, cold meats and seafood.
Toxoplasmosis, an infection caused by a parasite, is also dangerous in pregnant women - it is caught through close contact with infected cats, uncooked or poorly cooked meat.
Always wash vegetables and utensils well, cook meat thoroughly and reheat food until it is very hot.
Stop drinking alcohol and smoking, and reduce caffeine intake from coffee, tea and cola drinks, as they can affect the baby's healthy development.