Derval O’Rourke: First 1,000 days vital for babies nutrition

As a world-class athlete, a high-performance diet was always part of Derval O’Rourke’s regime, but now as she is about to become a mum, she is focussed on healthy eating during pregnancy, says Clodagh Finn.

AS TWEETS go, this one from three-times Olympic hurdler Derval O’Rourke was a beaut.

“Happy Mother’s Day from myself, my furry babies and my little bump,” she posted earlier this month, announcing to anyone who didn’t already know that she was expecting her first child.

Her ‘little bump’ is now five months old and the word that comes most readily to O’Rourke (33) when talking about her first pregnancy is “excited”.

This will be the first grandchild on her side and also for husband, fellow former Olympian, Peter O’Leary’s family, so the air of joyous expectation is catching.

She is bubbling with enthusiasm and the physical transition from high-performance athlete to mum-to-be hasn’t cost her a thought.

Derval O’Rourke: First 1,000 days vital for babies nutrition

She has gained seven kilos but describes her bump as being “quite cute”.

“It’s like a little accessory,” she says.

And it hasn’t stopped her doing all of the things she would normally do — or most of them at least.

She still works three days a week as player development manager with Munster Rugby and spends a lot of time in Dublin for various media commitments.

The pregnancy hasn’t slowed her down either. She trains four days a week.

She says people were surprised to hear that she was still lifting weights. Her exercise regime includes two weekly sessions lifting weights, but at a lower level.

She jogs one day a week and does a weekly pregnancy Pilates class — “I’m not very good at it,” she jokes.

“I was a professional athlete so I’m not going to do nothing. I’ll continue to exercise at a constant level,” she says.

During her 14 years as a professional athlete she broke several Irish records, won four European titles, a world indoor title and competed at the Olympics an impressive three times.

Naturally, this mother-to-be is not going to spend her pregnancy sitting on the couch eating cupcakes.

Though, she’ll never tell other women what they shouldn’t do during pregnancy. She wants to champion all that you can do while expecting a baby rather than dwell on what is off-limits.

That’s part of the reason she’s signed up to be an ambassador for the First 1,000 Days Movement, which aims to put a spotlight on the critical importance of nutrition during the first 1,000 days of life.

The self-confessed foodie joins celebrity chef Neven Maguire and TV presenter Maura Derrane as ambassadors highlighting the critical importance of nutrition during pregnancy.

A growing body of research indicates that getting nutrition right in the first 1,000 days can reduce the risk of adulthood diseases such as obesity and heart disease.

The campaign spans four key stages of development — pregnancy, breastfeeding, weaning and toddler — and offers parents workable solutions to achieve optimal nutrition during this time.

“As an athlete, I have always been aware of the critical role nutrition plays in my personal health and performance. But as a first-time mum-to-be and ambassador for the First 1,000 Days movement, my eyes have been opened to the profound long-term implications good nutrition can have during this formative time.

“There is so much to take in during the first few weeks and months of pregnancy, but what I have really learned is that what I am eat and drink while pregnant will have a huge effect on my baby’s health even before he or she is born.”

She doesn’t know if the baby will be a ‘he’ or ‘she’ and has no plans to find out. All she does know is that she is taking each healthy day as a bonus and will take everything else as it comes.

She was lucky enough to have no cravings but says she is hungrier than normal now. Her diet, though, is not such a radical departure from the kind of diet she would follow in training.

“Nothing is too out there — I’m eating steaks and oily fish. I’m enjoying my two portions of oily fish a week. That will help my baby’s brain and eyes develop properly.”

She’s also taking daily supplements of folic acid to reduce the risk of neural tube defects, such as spina bifida.

Apart from that, she is using her own flair in the kitchen to cook nutritious meals from scratch, something her own mother did before her.

Her own journey with food began in earnest when she ended up in hospital before the Olympics in Greece in 2004. She had appendicitis but also a bout of severe food poisoning, which set her thinking about the connection between nutrition and health.

She was eventually led to pharmacist and nutritionist Andrea Cullin in Limerick, who helped her radically change the way she thought about food.

A lot of those thoughts and adventures in the kitchen went into the bestselling Food for the Fast Lane. The book is packed with nutritious recipes for protein-packed breakfasts and nutritious lunches and dinners.

But you’ll also find some sweet treats too, like brownies and dark chocolate banana bread. Derval O’Rourke is not one to preach. As she reiterates, life should be all about what you can do rather than what you can’t.

Sometimes, she has said, you just need to have a coffee and a piece of cake.

She’s found cutting back on the coffee difficult enough, but is down to one cup a day.

Apart from that, the pregnancy has been going very well. “We found out early on, but there was no big dramatic revelation. There was no master plan, either. We just said if it happens, great. I was just tired for the first three months but I haven’t been sick.”

Seeing the first scan was a big thrill, though she thinks that the physical reality is harder for a man to understand — yet Peter is very excited about the little bundle who is due to arrive in August.

For now, her focus is on ensuring that she and her baby get the best nutrition possible at this pivotal time.

“I have the power to set my baby up for a lifetime of good health, so I hope I can inspire other mums-to-be to take action during this unique window of opportunity,” she says.

“People often focus on what you can’t and shouldn’t eat during pregnancy, but we don’t hear enough about what you should be eating. That’s what I love about the movement.

THE First 1,000 Days website is full of advice and recipes that are designed to give mothers-to-be and new mothers practical solutions.

The movement’s dietician Michael Gray explains: “During pregnancy, a baby grows and develops at a rate never again seen during a human lifetime. Good nutrition helps support the physical growth and mental development and will hopefully set them up for a lifetime of good health and wellbeing.”

Research has shown that children’s food preferences are influenced by the foods they were exposed to in the womb, through breast milk and, later, when they are weaned to solid foods.

Flavours can be transmitted from a mother’s diet — through amniotic fluid and breast milk — so what a mother ate during pregnancy or while breastfeeding can influence how a baby responds to that food when it is introduced to their diet.

Aware of the rich store of nutrients to be found in a mother’s milk, Derval plans to breastfeed, all going well, but for now is keeping things in the moment.

Ask her what kind of mother she will be and she says she hasn’t got a clue.

She says her own mother was very hands-on. “I could not have been an athlete without her, but I have no idea what I will be like. I will take it as it comes.”

She’s not sure how life post-birth will be either. Ask her how she’ll juggle all of her commitments, and again, she’ll tell you that she’ll take it as it comes.

Looking back, she says she has no regrets about hanging up her spikes.“It was time,” she says. The time was also ripe for the move from Dublin to Cork where she lives with her husband and two dogs just outside Carrigaline.

Speaking of the two dogs, “the furry babies” of the tweet. Up to now, a rescue greyhound called Berlino and a labradoodle called Chas have been what she calls “her little family”.

“We are very excited about adding to our little family, but I think they will adjust very well. Berlino likes to steals things, though, so we’ll have to hide the baby’s things.”

You’ll be able to read more about life in the O’Rourke/O’Leary household as the pregnancy progresses. Derval will continue to blog and share recipes.

* For more on the First 1,000 Days, see 


Maintain a healthy weight before and during pregnancy. In the nine months of pregnancy, average weight gain is from 25lbs to 35lbs.

Calcium is essential to keep your own bones healthy and strong and also for the development of your baby’s skeleton. Sources of calcium include milk, yoghurt, cheese and sunflower seeds.

Vitamin D helps your body to absorb calcium and it builds your baby’s stores of vitamin D too. Make sure your diet includes oily fish, eggs or fortified milk and a daily supplement.

It’s important to include sources of iodine in your diet (dairy products and fish), though you need only small amounts. It helps the thyroid gland to produce hormones that are important for the baby’s nervous system and brain development.

Iron is vital to help the development of your baby’s brain. Aim to eat iron-rich foods, such as red meat, chicken, eggs, beans and leafy green veg, twice a day.

Omega 3 fatty acids are vital for your baby’s brain, eyes and nervous system. Good sources include salmon, mackerel, trout and herring.

Folic acid is the most important nutrient to include before conceiving and for the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. The Food Safety Authority of Ireland recommends taking a 400µg while trying to get pregnant and for the first 12 weeks.


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