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How a dad’s health impacts his baby’s

When you’re thinking about having a baby, it’s women’s health that gets the lion’s share of attention. But since it takes two to conceive, it makes sense that men’s preconception health—his physical, mental, and biological well-being—also plays an important role. It’s vital for maintaining fertility and having healthy offspring. “Overall health is pivotal for male reproductive function,” comments Natan Bar-Charma, MD, president of the Society for Male Reproduction and Urology. “Lifestyle choices can directly impact sperm quality and the well-being of one’s offspring.”

You’ll give your children the healthiest start in life if you get your own health on track, before having a baby. These are the must-dos for fathers-to-be.

Schedule a men’s preconception health screening

If you’re considering starting a family, you should start with an appointment with your healthcare provider. “Since 50% of infertility cases contain a malefactor, all men should undergo preconception screening,” notes Tung-Chin Hsieh, MD, assistant clinical professor of urology at the UC San Diego School of Medicine. “Unfortunately, most men of reproductive age don’t see physicians regularly, and many preventable diseases are missed. In general, screening can be done by a primary care physician or a general urologist. If a problem is identified, you should be referred to a men’s health/reproductive urologist.”

Ideally, your appointment will include the following steps.

1. Get screened for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).

Anything that blocks or scars sperm ducts (such as STDs) can impact fertility. Many STDs, such as gonorrhea, don’t cause any noticeable symptoms. Screening can help uncover hidden conditions that impact fertility.

2. Discuss your health history.

Share any diseases or conditions you’ve had with your healthcare provider. Type 1 diabetes, for instance, can affect your sperm count. Ditto if you had the mumps after going through puberty (rarely does it cause infertility, but it can produce what doctors call “subfertility”). 

Collect your family history before your appointment, and discuss it with your physician. While your sister’s health may not seem important for your baby, certain conditions run in families. Your doctor may want to schedule genetic counseling or tests based on what you share.

3. Review the medications you take.

Some medications, whether prescription or over-the-counter (OTC), can impact fertility. A variety of drugs—including medications used to treat depression and anxiety, high blood pressure, fungal infections, hair loss, and other conditions—can alter sperm count and the sperm’s ability to fertilize an egg. Your physician can suggest alternatives.

4. Ask about vitamins. 

Some vitamins are good for your testicles and sperm production, according to research published in the Indian Journal of Urology, including:

And don’t forget folic acid. It’s a common ingredient in prenatal vitamins for women, but can have beneficial effects for men, too—improving sperm count and decreasing risk of birth defects. Just to be sure to use men’s preconception health vitamins with caution, if at all. And always talk to your doctor first. “Many OTC male fertility supplements actually contain hormones that can negatively impact a man’s sperm count,” says Dr. Hsieh. “I tell my patients to not waste money on fancy fertility vitamins. Several of these supplements may contain testosterone, which can increase the risk of heart disease and blood clots. A once-a-day multivitamin is enough.” (You can save on thousands of drugs, including vitamins, with your SingleCare card.)

5. Review potential lifestyle changes

You don’t have to permanently give up cigar-filled poker nights with the guys or forever forego a grilled T-bone in favor of sauteed tofu. But, your healthcare provider may recommend practice moderation now—to optimize your health, so you and your partner have the best shot at a healthy pregnancy later. 

This is especially important if you have some strikes working against you in the fertility department (like advanced age). One study from Rutgers University found that men older than 45 had poorer sperm quality, which can lead to a host of problems, like reduced fertility and the risk of fathering children born prematurely and with birth defects like heart problems and a cleft palate (an opening/split in the roof of the mouth and lip). 

What can men do to increase fertility?

The following steps can help to improve fertility.

Reach a healthy weight. 

Overweight men are 11% more likely than normal weight men to have a low sperm count and 39% more likely to have no sperm in their ejaculate, according to research from the Harvard School of Public Health. For obese men, the numbers are 42% and 81%, respectively. Obesity is also linked to reduced testosterone production, which can also lead to hypogonadism and decreased libido. 

It seems excess weight contributes to hormonal changes that damage sperm. Consider investigating the Mediterranean diet (rich in fish, olive oil, nuts, vegetables, beans, and whole grains). In addition to promoting weight loss, research shows it can boost sperm quality. 

The Mediterranean diet also features fewer dairy products than other diets, which may be another reason to try it during preconception. One study showed a correlation between high-fat dairy products and decreased sperm motility and abnormal sperm shape.

Quit smoking.

Men who smoke cigarettes have lower sperm counts, sperm with less motility, and overall lower sperm volume than men who don’t smoke, according to Postgraduate Medicine journal. That goes for anything you smoke—not just tobacco. Research shows that marijuana can have similar effects on sperm.

Chill.

It’s important—both figuratively and literally. “Psychological stress can affect sperm, so mental health is important,” says Philip Cheng, MD, a urologist with RMA, a leading fertility clinic in the U.S. “I also recommend that men [who are] actively trying to conceive to avoid activities that increase the temperature of the testes, such as hot tubs, saunas, seat warmers, laptops sitting on the lap, and even tight-fitting underwear.”

Skip the booze.

A new study looking at the drinking patterns of both moms- and dads-to-be in the three months prior to conception (as well as in the first trimester of pregnancy for women) found a strong association between any alcohol use and an increased likelihood of having a baby born with structural defects of the heart. And the risk increased as the drinking did. “For this reason, it might be wise to abstain from alcohol for at least three months prior to trying to get pregnant,” says Dr. Cheng.

And don’t forget to support your partner. You’re both working together to be your healthiest selves, to give your child the best start possible.