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Heading Off Trouble

Despite the gains made because of good prenatal care, the number of low-birth-weight babies has risen in the past eight years, according to the Pew Environmental Health Commission at Johns Hopkins University of Public Health.

Even when high-risk pregnancies -- multiples or infants born to teens or moms over 35 -- were not factored in, researchers found the number of newborns weighing less than 3 1/2 pounds at birth has risen, by 2 percent. The number of preterm babies is also higher (5 percent), as are infants with birth defects.

"We don't have a good explanation for these findings," says Lynn Goldman, M.D., principal investigator of the study. Possible suspects: environmental factors, such as toxins in the air and water, and certain maternal behaviors, such as smoking, drinking, and dieting, researchers believe.

What can you do to increase your chances for a healthy baby? Dr. Goldman suggests the following:

  • Eat a healthy diet that includes foods rich in iron (chicken, red meat, whole-grain breads, and green, leafy vegetables), folic acid (dried fruit, citrus fruit, and fortified grains), and calcium (broccoli, milk, cheese, and sardines).
  • Stay away from pesticides and chemical products, like varnish removers and wallpaper glue, whenever possible. Let someone else debug your garden, fumigate the house, or fix up the nursery.
  • Quit smoking and drinking immediately.

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