We explain what causes anaemia during pregnancy, how you can prevent it and what it means for you and your baby.
What causes anaemia?
If you have anaemia it means that your body is a little short of red blood cells; these contain a substance called haemoglobin and are responsible for carrying oxygen around your body.
Anaemia is a particularly common problem during pregnancy as you are sharing your blood supply with your developing baby. While the volume of your blood increases significantly over each of the three trimesters to compensate, the amount of plasma (the fluid part of your blood) produced tends to be a little higher than the number of new red blood cells. This in turn reduces their concentration in your blood and can therefore disrupt your body's supply of oxygen.
Most cases of anaemia are caused by a shortage of iron, vitamin B12 or folic acid as all three are needed for red blood cells to develop.
What are the symptoms?
Common symptoms of anaemia include extreme tiredness, weakness, dizziness, feeling faint, pale skin and a pallid complexion. In more severe cases of anaemia palpitations, headaches and breathlessness can also occur. It is, however, important to note that experiencing any or all of these symptoms doesn't necessarily mean that you are anaemic as some may simply be a side effect of your pregnancy.
Who is at risk?
It is estimated that anaemia affects around 1 in 5 women during pregnancy because of the extra demands that growing a baby places on the body. However, those more likely to tend towards anaemia are women who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, are pregnant with twins or triplets, experience a number pregnancies in quick succession, or had very heavy periods before they were expecting.
What can I do to prevent anaemia during pregnancy?
Eating a healthy, balanced diet is the best way to avoid anaemia during pregnancy so it's a good idea to:
How is anaemia treated?
- Eat plenty of iron rich foods -
Lean red meat, leafy green vegetables, dried apricots, fortified breakfast cereals, wholemeal bread, eggs and sardines are all good sources.
- Get enough vitamin C -
Eating a diet rich in vitamin C will mean that your body absorbs as much iron as possible from the foods you consume. Colourful fruit (particularly citrus fruits) and vegetables are a good source.
- Get enough vitamin B12 -
This can be found in meat, fish, eggs, dairy products and fortified breakfast cereals.
- Boost your folic acid intake -
It's recommended that all women supplement their diet with 400micrograms of folic acid a day up to the 12th week of pregnancy as this can significantly reduce the risk of neural tube defects such as spinal bifida. However, it's also important to get enough folic acid after the first trimester milestone too as it is also important for your general health. Foods that are naturally high in folate (the naturally occurring form of folic acid) include chickpeas, brown rice, peas, asparagus, broccoli, fortified breakfast cereals and bread.
- Steer clear of tea and coffee at mealtimes -
Tea and coffee can affect the amount of iron your body is able to absorb so it's best to cut down the amount you drink and avoid having them at meal times.
- Supplement your diet -
You should be able to get all of the vitamins and minerals you need for a healthy pregnancy from a balanced diet. However, it can be a good idea to supplement your diet with a multi vitamin specifically designed for pregnancy just in case. Your doctor will be able to advise you as to which is likely to be most suitable. However you can also find out more information about choosing an antenatal supplement here.
Your doctor will monitor your blood-iron levels throughout your pregnancy, usually from your first appointment onwards so this isn't something you need to worry about at all. Should they find at any stage that your iron levels are low and that you are tending towards anaemia they are likely to suggest that you make changes to your diet in order to boost your iron levels.
In some cases iron tables may be prescribed for a more direct boost to your body's supply. Some women find that they are sensitive to these tablets and suffer with constipation or diarrhoea when they take them. However, it's usually possible to avoid these 'side effects' if you take the tablets on a full stomach (either during or after a meal) and start with a very small dose, gradually increasing the amount you are taking over time as per your doctor's instructions.
Will it harm my baby?
During pregnancy your body puts the needs of your developing baby before its own so rest assured that even if you do get a little bit anaemic your baby will be getting the supply she or he needs to grow healthily.
Whether you have a question about healthy eating during pregnancy or something else, why not visit the AskBaby forums for a chat with other parents-to-be?