It's a good bet mom never told you to speak to your doctor before getting pregnant. But these days, that's exactly what women of childbearing age -- and their male partners -- are being encouraged to do.
Experts say most physicians realize the importance of pre-pregnancy counseling and measures, making sure, for example, that women take folic acid during their reproductive years to prevent birth defects.
Yet surveys suggest that few doctors practice preconception care -- or even ask patients about their pregnancy plans.
"We're sort of waiting for women to come to us and say, 'I'm planning to get pregnant. What should I do?'" said Dr. Anne L. Dunlop, an assistant professor in the Department of Family and Preventive Medicine at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta.
The term "preconception care" refers to the set of health interventions that can improve the chances of getting pregnant, having a healthy pregnancy, and delivering a healthy baby. These include quitting smoking or drinking alcohol, as well as receiving nutrition counseling, and undergoing early screening to detect and treat sexually transmitted diseases.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with guidance from groups like the March of Dimes and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, issued recommendations in 2006 to improve preconception care in the United States. Since that time, these organizations have been working with leaders in the medical community to integrate the advice into clinical practice.
The Georgia Academy of Family Physicians, for one, is conducting "Quality Circles" to bring health-care providers up to speed with the recommendations and identify ways to integrate pre-pregnancy services into their practices, Dunlop noted.
In part, the CDC recommendations encourage every woman, man and couple to have a reproductive plan, even if they do not intend to conceive. About half of all pregnancies in the United States are unintended, the agency noted, underscoring the need for contraception counseling.