A newcomer’s guide to pregnancy and early parenthood in Canada: Part one
By Dara Poizner
Posted on April 19, 2021
Pregnancy and parenthood can be life-changing for anyone, but there are special considerations for newcomers.If you are new to Canada, you may find that the care and general practices surrounding pregnancy and childbirth are different from your country of origin.
This two-part article provides:
- Information about healthcare and other services
- An overview of some health factors relating to pregnancy, childbirth, and the time after
- Information about taking parental leave from work
- Links to resources for newcomers
Note that in Canada, you can legally and safely end a pregnancy if you do not want to carry to term. Abortion is publicly funded as a medical procedure under the Canada Health Act; however, access to abortion services may depend on certain factors, including where you live.
Access to prenatal (during pregnancy/before birth) and postnatal (after birth) medical care is important for the health of the parent and the baby. Make an appointment with a healthcare provider if you plan to get pregnant or as soon as you find out you are pregnant.
Canada hasa a universal healthcare system with public provincial/territorial insurance plans available for citizens and permanent residents. See this article for general information about Canada’s healthcare system and this article to learn about applying for a health card in Canada.
Types of care providers
There are three main types of care providers for pregnancy and birth: doctors, obstetricians, and midwives. They often work together to care for patients. Depending on your preferences and health needs, you may work with one or more healthcare professionals. This Choosing a Care Provider Directory can help you locate care providers in your province or territory.
Most family doctors are skilled in dealing with reproductive and prenatal health, labour and birth, and postpartum and newborn care. If you have a regular doctor, they can provide primary care during planning and pregnancy and ongoing care for you and the child after the birth. Nurse practitioners sometimes provide prenatal care along with doctors.
Obstetricians (OBs) are medical doctors who specialize in pregnancy and birth. They are trained to manage more complicated or higher-risk pregnancies. They can also perform cesarean sections and emergency surgeries. As with other medical specialists, you need to be referred to an OB by a family doctor. If you do not have a family doctor and would like a referral to an OB, you can visit a doctor at a walk-in clinic.
Registered midwives are health professionals who provide primary care before, during, and after birth. They work with low-risk pregnancies and can perform physical exams, order medical tests, and support normal vaginal births. Regulated midwifery care is part of the healthcare system in most provinces and territories. You can contact a midwife without a referral.
With any type of care provider, you should feel like your needs are being met and that you are able to ask questions.Culturally appropriate care is important in a multicultural society like Canada. Many people seek out professionals who are sensitive to their cultural needs or can communicate with them in their native language if they do not speak English.
Community health centres
If you do not already have a family doctor or government health insurance, there are options including:
- Purchasing a private insurance plan which can cover parts of the cost of medical services
- Visiting a public health unit for support if there is one that serves your area
- Visiting a community health centre
Community health centres (CHCs) are not-for-profit organizations that take a team approach to patient care and provide multiple services based on patient needs. Staff may include doctors, nurse practitioners, social workers, dietitians, specialists, and other health professionals. Generally, CHCs help people who do not have a family doctor or health insurance, newcomers to Canada, and those who face other barriers (e.g., language, culture, poverty, mental health issues). Many CHCs offer prenatal and parenting healthcare and education.
Community health centres are known by different names across Canada, but each province and territory should have some community health services available. Note: this is not meant to be a complete list of available community health services.
- Alberta: Alberta Community Health Centres
- British Columbia: British Columbia Association of Community Health Centres
- Manitoba: Manitoba Association of Community Health
- New Brunswick: Horizon Health Network: Facilities
- Newfoundland and Labrador: Health and Community Services
- Northwest Territories: Health and Social Services Authority Healthy Family Program
- Nova Scotia: Nova Scotia Association of Community Health Centres
- Nunavut: Government of Nunavut: Health Facilities
- Ontario: Ontario Community Health Centres, Alliance for Healthier Communities
- Prince Edward Island: Primary Care Health Centres
- Quebec: Finding a CLSC (local community service centre)
- Saskatchewan: Saskatchewan Health Authority: Community Health Centres
- Yukon: Find a hospital or health centre
Pregnancy and parenthood are often challenging times. As a pregnant individual or new parent, it is extremely helpful to have a support system in place. Building a support network may be more difficult for those who are new to a country and do not know a lot of people.
This guide for pregnant newcomers from the YMCA suggests finding resources in your community like prenatal exercise classes, new parent education programs, or cultural centres. There are many possible benefits such as learning important skills, maintaining your wellbeing, and meeting people in the area who may share some of your experiences. Some services are available for free or low-cost.
There are many elements to prenatal health. If you are pregnant, see your healthcare provider(s) regularly to ensure you get the necessary medical care and specific guidance for taking care of yourself and the baby.
As part of your pregnancy, you will get routine tests, including (but not limited to):
- Hepatitis B screening
- Glucose testing for gestational diabetes
- Ultrasounds to gather important information about the fetus and the pregnancy
Several factors will determine which tests are recommended for you and which you choose to get. Many people choose to do genetic testing and screening to check for certain conditions. Certain factors can increase the risk of a child being born with a genetic health condition. While the results are not always conclusive, genetic testing can help with planning.
In addition to medical care, having a healthy pregnancy requires you to monitor your lifestyle and general health more carefully. The Sensible Guide to Health Pregnancy from the Government of Canada outlines many lifestyle aspects of pregnancy, summarized below.
Getting all the necessary nutrients before conception and during pregnancy is important for the health of the developing baby and the parent. This involves eating a variety of foods including fruits and vegetables, grains, dairy or dairy alternatives, and meat or other proteins. At certain points in your pregnancy, you will also need extra calories to support the baby’s growth. During pregnancy you must avoid eating foods that may be contaminated by bacteria, such undercooked fish and meat.
For details, see Canada’s Food Guide’s recommendations for healthy eating when pregnant and breastfeeding.
Folic acid is a B vitamin that is necessary for the normal development of a baby’s spine, brain, and skull. Folic acid (called folate when it occurs naturally in foods) reduces the risk of neural tube defects, which occur when the neural tube does not close properly during the early weeks of pregnancy and can lead to stillbirth or disability.
If you plan to get pregnant, you should be taking supplements and including enough folate in your diet beforehand. Talk to your healthcare provider for specific instructions.
Being active is recommended as part of a healthy pregnancy. In addition to the usual benefits of exercise, like improving mood and increasing strength, it can also help with things like appropriate weight gain during pregnancy and speeding up recovery after childbirth.
If you were regularly active before becoming pregnant, continue to exercise and make changes as needed. If you were not, start with low impact activities like walking and slowly increase your activity levels. Do not push yourself too hard.
Oral health can be affected by pregnancy, so it is important to make sure you are caring for your teeth, gums, and mouth. Hormonal changes may increase your risk of developing gum disease, which can negatively affect both you and the baby. Stomach acid left on the teeth can cause decay, so make sure you rinse your mouth right away if you vomit (as many people do from morning sickness). A dental professional can help you maintain good oral health.
Risks of alcohol and tobacco use
It is unsafe to drink any type or amount of alcohol at any point during pregnancy. Drinking alcohol during pregnancy may cause the baby to develop fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, a range of disabilities that can affect people who were exposed to alcohol in the womb. Talk to your healthcare provider and seek community support if you need help to stop drinking.
Exposure to tobacco smoke, whether direct or second-hand, can be very dangerous for the baby. It can lead to many complications before and after birth, such as:
- Preventing the baby from getting enough oxygen and nutrients
- Exposing the baby to thousands of chemicals, some of which are associated with cancer
- Increasing the risk of sudden infant death syndrome
- Increasing the risk of the child developing other health problems that may affect them later in life
The Government of Canada has compiled resources for quitting smoking, organized by province and territory. There are online, telephone, and community resources available.
Mental and emotional health
As always, it is important to look after your emotional wellbeing during pregnancy. Pregnancy can bring new challenges, as many people experience periods of depression, anxiety, or mood swings caused by hormonal changes. If you have concerns about your mental health, discuss them with your care provider.
Everyday things you can do to tend to your mental and emotional health include:
- Eating well
- Getting enough rest and physical activity
- Avoiding stressful situations whenever possible
- Sharing your thoughts and feelings with someone you trust
Click here to read part two of this article, which covers childbirth, health after pregnancy and birth, and parental leave, and includes links to resources for newcomers.