Pre-conception health - the notion that would-be parents ought to be fit for pregnancy well before the prospective baby is even a glint in their eyes - should be easy for a health-conscious society to take on board, writes Heather Welford. However pre-conception care is problematic. An estimated half of all pregnancies are unplanned. Telling 50 per cent of future parents that they should have prepared for conception months beforehand is not only useless, but anxiety-making at a time that's already stressful enough.

Sparing feelings is perhaps one reason why advice on pre-conception health is only now reaching the mainstream of maternity care. Yet while no one claims preparation can guarantee a problem-free pregnancy and a healthy baby, there's now really good evidence that it's worthwhile.

It's a way of tipping the scales in your baby's favour, especially if you've had problems in the past, or if you have had a baby born pre-term.

Basic advice should be implemented three to six months before conception.

t Both partners should give up smoking. Smoking has been shown to affect the quality and quantity of sperm, to increase the risk of miscarriage and to interfere with the growth and health of the foetus.

t Both partners should avoid heavy drinking. Binge drinking in very early pregnancy increases the risk of miscarriage. Sperm are also affected by alcohol. Some advisers counsel total abstinence.

t Women should increase their intake of folic acid, one of the B vitamins important for cell growth and development. This has been shown to reduce the incidence of spina bifida and other neural tube defects. Current Department of Health recommendation is to take one 400 mcg folic acid supplement daily before pregnancy and for the first three months after conception (see page IV).

t If either of you is taking prescribed medication, check with the GP that it's safe to continue. Street drugs can be harmful at conception and during pregnancy.

Mental health and pregnancy

Mental health is as important as physical health. Everyone can do something to look after their mental well-being. Feeling anxious or confused is normal sometimes, especially during stressful periods, so pregnancy is an important time to look after your body and your mind. There are many ways to keep yourself healthy mentally, which will be beneficial to you and your baby.

t Relax and find some time to yourself - play some music or put your feet up.

t Be creative - try something new, like decorating the baby's room.

t Stay active - gentle exercise can help to clear your head and improve your mood.

t Express yourself - laugh or scream when you need to. Don't bottle things up.

t Keep in touch with family and friends - talking to others can be helpful.