The rising birth rate, coupled with problems linked to obesity levels during pregnancy and birth, is putting pressure on overstretched maternity services, reducing the time available to discuss important diet and lifestyle issues, and potentially putting mothers and unborn babies at risk. The British Nutrition Foundation (BNF) is providing a helping hand and enabling parents to arm themselves with essential facts about fetal development, nutrition and exercise.

Data from the Royal College of Midwives suggests that there are around 4,500 too few midwives in the UK to deliver a safe, high-quality service¹.  According to the BNF, not only are midwives essential for the safe delivery of babies, they have historically been a vital source of information on nutrition, including maintaining a healthy body weight.  But with more babies being born to overweight or obese mothers, alongside other pressures on the profession, midwives are stretched to the limit and not always able to provide the extra services they once did.

Weight management is just one of the areas for concern though.  According to the BNF few women, whatever their weight, follow the recommendations for nutrition and lifestyle, such as taking a folic acid supplement² before they conceive, and many may be lacking essential nutrients in their diet³.   

Bridget Benelam, Senior Nutrition Scientist at the BNF said: “Expectant parents have a right to reliable, balanced information.  Nutrition is a complex science and people can’t be expected to make the right choices about weight control, nutrition and exercise before, during or after pregnancy, without access to facts and expert advice.”  

Examples of nutrients that are important during pregnancy include protein, which is essential for health and to build extra tissue, as well as laying down the foundations for an unborn baby’s developing organs; essential fatty acids, which help to maintain a mother’s heart health while playing an important role in her baby’s brain and eye development; calcium and vitamin D, which are essential for the mother’s bone health as well as her baby’s, and all pregnant women should be taking vitamin D supplements.

Responding to the pressing need for a reliable source of information, the BNF has developed a free online resource for parents and health professionals that can be accessed at:

Bridget Benelam concludes: “The resource has been designed as a ‘companion’ for parents, to arm them with nutrition information, based on scientific evidence, to help take some of the worry and uncertainty out of parenting.”


¹Royal College of Midwives data, 2011
²Inskip HM et al. (2009) Women’s compliance with nutrition and lifestyle recommendations before pregnancy: general population cohort study. BMJ. 338:b481
³SACN. (2008). The nutritional well being of the British population


Additional nutrition and pregnancy information

There are around 3.5 million UK couples affected by infertility every year.  The BNF believes that many people could benefit from knowing that good nutrition may increase their chances of conceiving.  Zinc and selenium, found in meat, fish, shellfish and bread, are particularly important for men at this stage as they help to develop and protect the sperm cells.  Being a healthy weight also is very important for fertility in men and women.  In men, obesity may affect sperm quality and reproductive hormones, while in women it may contribute to irregularities in ovulation and menstruation and may increase pregnancy-related risks. 

Bones and teeth

Most of a newborn baby’s skeleton is formed during the last 3 months of pregnancy and it contains between 20-30g of calcium.  In addition, a baby’s teeth are actually formed while in the womb. The mother’s body naturally adapts to use calcium more efficiently during pregnancy but if calcium intakes are insufficient, mothers risk losing calcium from their own bones and teeth to provide for the growing baby. Extra vitamin D is needed during pregnancy and breastfeeding to ensure that both the mother and baby are absorbing all the calcium their bones need.  Many pregnant women are not aware that they should be taking vitamin D supplements of 10 micrograms each day throughout pregnancy.  These are available via the government’s Healthy Start scheme. This is particularly important considering that there are many women in the UK with low vitamin D status.  A lack of vitamin D during pregnancy can affect a child’s bone health long-term and may also have long term detrimental effects for mothers.

Heart and brain

Essential omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids found in oily fish, nuts, seeds and vegetable and seed oils (e.g. rape seed oil, sunflower seed oil) and spreads made from these, help to keep the heart healthy. For unborn babies, essential fatty acids perform an additional role, forming a major component of membranes in brain cells, the coating of nerve cells and of the retina of the eye, thus laying the building blocks for the baby’s nervous system and eyes to develop.  A lack of omega 3 fatty acids in the diet of pregnant women has been associated with giving birth early and having a baby with a low birth weight.

An exercise regime, tailored for the stage of pregnancy, can help to keep the heart pumping and lungs healthy, prevent excess weight gain, reduce muscle pain and cramps, reduce swelling in the legs and feet; can help to keep mood swings in check; reduce risk of high blood pressure and gestational diabetes and may even help mothers to have a shorter and easier labour! This, in turn, can benefit the unborn baby by reducing the risk of complications during birth.

There is clear evidence that heavy drinking during pregnancy can have a detrimental effect on a growing baby’s health. Although the evidence for the harms from low to moderate alcohol consumption (i.e. 2-10 units per week) is less clear, current government advice is for women to abstain from drinking alcohol throughout pregnancy.

For further information, interviews and images contact:
Bridget Benelam
Tel: 020 7404 6504 / 07966 032293. Email: [email protected]  

Notes for Editors:

1.    BNF offers an expert nutrition information service for journalists and media. Tel: 02074046504. Email: [email protected]

2.    BNF was established over 40 years ago and exists to deliver authoritative, evidence-based information on food and nutrition in the context of health and lifestyle. The Foundation’s work is conducted and communicated through a unique blend of nutrition science, education and media activities. BNF’s strong governance is broad-based but weighted towards the academic community.  BNF is a registered charity that attracts funding from a variety of sources, including contracts with the European Commission, national government departments and agencies; food producers and manufacturers, retailers and food service companies; grant providing bodies, trusts and other charities. Further details about our work, governance and funding can be found on our website ( and in our Annual Reports.

Last reviewed June 2011. Next review due December 2013.