Nutrition for young pregnant women (under 20 years old)
Becoming pregnant as a young person can be an exciting time, but it can also be frightening and you may have concerns about money, housing, education, relationships or family.
Every mum, young or old, wants the best for their baby. But studies have shown that young women are more likely to have premature birth, a baby with a low birthweight or start pregnancy underweight when compared to older women, and these are more likely to increase the risk of health complications for the baby.
Eating the right food and drink is an important part of having a healthy pregnancy to help your baby grow and develop properly. Young mums also need to look after themselves; they may still be growing too.
The diet of some young women is sometimes not as great as it could be. For example, studies have shown young women may be more likely to skip meals, choose to eat fast foods on a regular basis or have too much sugar in their diets. Some young women may also lack nutrients in their diets that are important for themselves and their growing babies, like iron and calcium.
There may be particular challenges for younger pregnant women, for example, housing issues may mean they don’t have anywhere to cook. But it’s still a good time to think about diet and make some changes that will be good for mum and baby. Even small and simple changes can make a difference!
This section has been specially written to support young pregnant women (under 20 years old), and answer some of the questions they may have.
What should I be eating more of now I’m pregnant?
Pregnancy is a great time to try and look after yourself and get lots of nutrients for you and your baby, giving the best start in life. Try to eat lots of different foods every day and include something from each of the following main food groups:
- Bread, rice, potatoes or pasta (wholegrain if possible) - try to base your meals on these; they give you the energy you and your baby need.
- Fruit and vegetables (fresh, frozen, dried or canned) - try to eat 5 different fruits and vegetables a day; a small glass of fruit juice (150ml) can count as one. They contain lots of vitamins and minerals for your baby’s growth and development.
- Meat, fish, eggs and beans - try to eat a couple of these a day; they are important for your baby’s growth. Canned fish is cheap and nutritious and so are canned peas, beans and lentils like baked beans, chickpeas and red kidney beans.
- Milk and dairy foods (e.g. cheese, yogurt) or dairy-free alternatives if you are vegan - try to eat a couple of these a day; they are important for your baby’s bones.
There are also certain foods you should avoid eating whilst pregnant. See our section on what not to eat when you are pregnant.
And don’t forget drinks…
- Tap water is a great choice because it hydrates without providing extra calories or sugars that, and it is also the cheapest and too.
- Unsweetened fruit and vegetable juices - these can provide some vitamins and minerals, and one small glass (150ml) counts as a maximum of one portion of your 5 A DAY. However, they also contain sugars and can be acidic, which can harm teeth, so it’s best to drink them with a meal.
- Milk - provides important nutrients including calcium, iodine, B vitamins and protein, but it is a good idea to choose lower-fat varieties.
- Try not to drink too many sugary drinks, like sugary fizzy drinks, and avoid energy drinks as these are often high in caffeine (a warning should be provided on the label).
- Tea and coffee also contain caffeine, which you should not have too much of when you are pregnant - it is recommended that you have no more than 200mg of caffeine per day.
Healthy Start Vouchers
For all pregnant women under 18, and those over 18 who are receiving certain benefits, Healthy Start vouchers are available. The vouchers can be spent on milk, fruit and vegetables (fresh or frozen with nothing added), and infant formula.
Healthy Start vitamins for pregnant women (containing folic acid and vitamins C and D) are also available.
For more information visit www.healthystart.nhs.uk
Remember to take your supplements!
During pregnancy you also need to take the following vitamins every day:
Folate (400µg every day, up to 12 weeks of pregnancy) – start taking this as early as possible in your pregnancy (or before you become pregnant), as it helps to reduce the risk of your baby developing spina bifida and other neural tube defects (problems with their brain and spine).
Vitamin D (10µg every day) – this is important during the autumn and winter months to help your baby grow strong bones. However, if you are not exposed to much sunlight (e.g. if you cover your skin or spend a large amount of time indoors), or if you have dark skin (for example, you have an African, African-Caribbean or South Asian background), your skin will not produce as much vitamin D naturally from sunlight. Therefore, you should take a daily supplement containing 10μg of vitamin D all year round.
You should be able to buy these from your local pharmacy. If you are under 18 or have a low family income, you can apply for Healthy Start and get these vitamins for free.
I hate vegetables, do I really have to eat them?
There are lots of different vegetables you could try. They don’t all taste the same, so it is worth trying a few out and seeing which ones you don’t mind eating. Some are slightly sweeter than others, such as sweetcorn, peas, red pepper, carrots and sweet potato, so maybe try these and see what you think. Rather than boiling them for a long time, try cooking vegetables until they are just tender, as they often taste better this way. Or, you could try eating them raw, such as carrot sticks or red pepper strips. Why not try chopping vegetables up into very small pieces and putting them in sauces or stews, like in bolognaise, as it may make it easier for you to eat them. If you prefer fruit, make sure you eat plenty of different types of fruit.
I have no time for breakfast in the morning, is it still OK to skip breakfast now I’m pregnant?
Breakfast is a great way to start the day and get some essential nutrients for you and your baby. Breakfast cereals with semi-skimmed milk are quick and easy - try to choose a breakfast cereal which is low in added sugar and salt. If you are really pushed for time, why not try a fruit smoothie, drinking yogurt or banana, which you can eat on the go. When you do have time, try porridge (made with milk), fruit or eggs for simple but delicious breakfasts.
I am not the one who does the food shopping or cooking at home. I just eat what I’m given, so how can I make sure what I eat is healthy for me and my baby?
Try to let the person who is doing the shopping and cooking know what types of food are good for you and your baby. Also, if you get Healthy Start vouchers, spend them on fruits and vegetables that you can eat as a healthy snack during the day. Perhaps the person doing the shopping or cooking wouldn’t mind a helping hand, which will let you have more of a say on what you eat.
How can I eat a healthy diet on a tight budget?
If you are under 18 years old or are receiving benefits, you may be able to get Healthy Start vouchers. The Healthy Start vouchers can be used to buy fruit and vegetables or milk. For more information visit www.healthystart.nhs.uk.
Frozen or canned fruit (in fruit juice or water rather than syrup) or vegetables can often be cheaper than fresh ones. Canned fish like sardines or salmon is often cheaper than fresh too, and can just be stored in the cupboard. If you can, try shopping around to see if you can find things cheaper elsewhere. Fruit and veg stalls and local butchers can sometimes be cheaper than supermarkets. For more tips on eating on a budget, follow this link.
How can I eat a healthy diet when I can’t cook?
Cooking may be easier than you think. Why not see if there is a cooking class in your area to help teach you the basics, or perhaps you have a relative or friend who could show you a thing or two. There are lots of recipes which are healthy, simple and quick – have a look online and see what you can find. Try some simple things first – beans or scrambled eggs on wholemeal toast, or pasta and tomato sauce. You can also choose healthy options, even if you don’t cook. Compare food labels and choose meals which include lots of vegetables and which are lower in fat, added sugar and salt. You can also eat healthy snacks without having to cook. Try some carrot sticks and houmous, low-fat yogurt, crispbread with soft low fat cheese spread, or a piece of fruit.
How can I eat a healthy diet when I don’t have anywhere to cook?
Eat as well as you can manage. There are lots of recipes you could try if you have access to a microwave - see what recipes you can find online. Things like jacket potato are great with lots of different toppings, like grated cheese and tomato or tuna and sweetcorn, or try scrambled eggs with baked beans.
You can also cook noodles or couscous with hot water from a kettle – why not add a can of mixed beans and a can of tuna to couscous for a quick and easy meal. If you are buying pre-prepared meals and takeaways, check out the answer to the next question.
I prefer eating takeaways or ready meals. Are these really bad?
They don’t have to be, as long as you pick carefully. If you are buying ready meals, check the labels and see if you can find meals which have some vegetables in them and are lower in fat, saturates, sugar and salt.
Try to look at food labels and look for things lower in fat, saturates, sugar and salt. This is sometimes colour coded on the front of the packet (green means it is low, red means it is high and amber is in between). Try to choose products with mainly greens or amber. For more information about looking at food labels, follow this link.
If you are buying takeaways, try to avoid foods which are fried, contain lots of pastry, or have a creamy sauce. Why not add some more veg on your pizza, add some sweetcorn to boiled rice or choose a small portion of chips and add mushy peas.
For more information on eating outside of the home, follow this link.
I’m a vegetarian. Do I have to start eating meat now I’m pregnant?
You can still get all the nutrients you and your baby need from a vegetarian diet but it may require a little extra thought and planning. You will need to make sure you are getting enough iron by eating things like beans and other pulses (e.g. lentils), quinoa, eggs, brown bread, and breakfast cereals fortified with iron (check the label). You also need to make sure you are getting enough protein by eating protein-rich foods like beans and other pulses, tofu, cheese and eggs. To find some more information about vegetarian or vegan pregnancies, follow this link.
What about smoking and alcohol? Are they really that bad?
Buying alcohol when you are under 18 years old is illegal. In 2016, the Department of Health updated the alcohol guidelines and advised not to drink any alcohol in pregnancy. You can still go out and have fun when you are pregnant, but getting drunk is bad for your baby. Smoking is also bad for your baby, and increases their risk of being born early, not weighing enough, being stillborn (born with no signs of life) or suffering sudden infant death syndrome (‘cot death’). All street drugs (like cannabis, cocaine and ecstasy) are illegal and can harm your baby. Talk to your midwife or doctor if you need help in giving up alcohol, smoking or drugs – there is support out there for you.
Can I eat loads now I’m pregnant – shall I eat for two?
Your body is really good at adapting to pregnancy and you don’t need to eat for two. Towards the end of pregnancy, in the last trimester (last 3 months), you will require around 200 extra calories a day, which for example, you can get from a low fat yogurt and a banana. You will put on some weight during pregnancy, although this is natural and also important. But, if you eat too many foods high in fat and sugar and do too little exercise, you may gain more weight than is healthy, and it will be harder for you to lose this extra weight after pregnancy. For more information on managing your weight during pregnancy, follow this link.
I don’t want to put on any weight. How can I stop it?
Everyone will put on some weight whilst pregnant and it is a sign of a normal, healthy pregnancy. The weight you put on comes from a number of things, including the weight of your baby, the placenta and fluid surrounding your baby, but also from increases in the amount of blood in your body, and increases in the size of your breasts and fat stores ready for breastfeeding. These are all things that are needed to help produce a healthy baby. You will lose a lot of this extra weight when you deliver your baby. Healthy eating, exercise and breastfeeding can also help you return to the weight you were before pregnancy, and breastfeeding is the healthiest and most natural way to give your baby the best start in life, and can also be good for your own health.
I’m really not good with pain. Is labour easier with a small baby?
Although mums may think that having a small baby is a good thing, it’s not. Babies that don’t weigh enough have a greater risk of health problems.
Your body still goes through the same labour pains whether your baby is small or large. Most labour pain comes from the powerful squeezing of the muscles in your womb (the contractions) and this happens at the same level, whether your baby is big or small. The position of the baby during the delivery and how relaxed you feel during the labour process are probably more likely to affect how much pain you feel, rather than the size of the baby. Having a small baby may also increase the risk of the baby having health problems during birth and in later life. Eating a good diet and following a healthy lifestyle will help you to have a healthy enjoyable pregnancy and a healthy baby. There are many different options for pain-relief during labour (speak to your midwife).
Healthy eating goals - see how many you can tick off during your pregnancy!
Choosing one or two a week to focus on is great way to start!
This week I’ll…
- Take my pregnancy vitamins every day
- Try a new vegetable or fruit I’ve never tried before
- Find a new easy recipe online and give it a go
- Join a local cooking class
- Eat breakfast every day
- Have a piece of fruit as a snack every day
- Drink a small glass of orange juice with my breakfast, lunch or dinner
- Have a low fat yogurt for dessert after lunch or dinner
- Choose a wholegrain version of starchy carbs like brown rice, wholemeal pasta or wholemeal bread
- Swap sugary fizzy drinks for water or milk
- Look at the food labels and select meals and snacks which have green (ideally) or amber colour coding for fat, sugar and salt.
Information reviewed June 2015
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Please note that advice provided on our website about nutrition and health is general in nature. We do not provide any personal advice on prevention, treatment and management for patients or their family members.