Myths around eating eggs, which are now safer and more nutrient-dense than ever, mean millions of mums-to-be and their babies are missing out on their proven nutritional benefits.
A new report , to be published in the 13th February issue of the nurses journal, Nursing Standard, recommends eggs as an ideal food for both mothers-to-be and their babies, but many women are still confused. A balanced diet is vital during pregnancy and weaning, not just for fuelling growth and development, but for minimising potential harm, and there are concerns that unwarranted fears are causing women to overlook eggs.
A recent poll showed that more than half of 18-24 year old mothers were concerned about eating eggs while pregnant with nine out of ten worried about their safety.
In all age groups four in ten mothers were anxious about eating eggs in pregnancy, 85 per cent of them due to food safety fears, 17 per cent apprehensive about allergy, and 10 per cent because they were unsure how to cook them.
Allergy fears were even higher when women considered offering eggs to their babies during weaning. Forty per cent of mothers who were unsure about giving eggs to their babies blamed worries about a possible allergic reaction while 76 per cent cited food safety concerns.
Yet eggs are safer than ever before and can make a valuable contribution to the diets of pregnant women and infants.
Dietitian and author of the Nursing Standard report, Dr Carrie Ruxton, said: "Eggs are one of the most nutritious foods available and can make an important contribution to the diet of pregnant women and infants helping them to achieve optimal intakes of vitamins and minerals."
"Evidence suggests that cooked eggs should be introduced once infants reach 6 months of age, perhaps as scrambled eggs or eggy bread. Waiting longer to introduce eggs appears to offer no benefit and may actually increase the risk of egg allergy."
British eggs have never been safer and UK egg production is among the best in the world, yet, as the poll showed, pregnant women and those with young babies are still concerned about food safety risks. New mums are so confused as to what age their babies can start eating eggs that they err on the side of caution by not giving them at all. There are also concerns about the freshness of eggs and the risk of salmonella poisoning.
The nutritional composition of eggs has changed dramatically since the 1980s when the reputation of and public confidence in them was severely damaged by claims from the then health minister Edwina Currie that most of the country's egg production was infected by salmonella.
Now not only are most British eggs free of salmonella they contain fewer calories, less fat, saturated fat and cholesterol, but much more vitamin D.
The improvements are due to the British Lion Quality Code of Practice which ensures all hens are vaccinated against salmonella and has introduced changes and strict controls on hen feeding practices with a shift from meat and bone meal to feeds based on sunflower oil, wheat and soya.
Two Government surveys of UK eggs in 2004 found no evidence of salmonella contamination inside any retail egg, and no salmonella contamination in catering eggs complying with Lion Quality Code standards.
A pregnant woman's diet can affect her unborn baby and specific nutrients found in eggs may help support both maternal health and foetal development. These include folate, vitamin D, iodine, selenium, choline and long-chain omega-3 fatty acids.
The vitamin D content of eggs is particularly important as vitamin D deficiency affects 19% of women of childbearing age and few natural sources of vitamin D exist. Low vitamin D status during pregnancy has been associated with a higher risk of pre-eclampsia and gestational diabetes in the mother and a higher prevalence of wheezing and infectious disease in babies.
Folate is vital during pregnancy for the normal development of the neural tube, with low intakes increasing the risk of birth defects.
In addition, eggs help with weight management during pregnancy, a growing issue as high levels of maternal obesity seen in the UK are believed to put mothers and their babies at increased risk of obstetric complications. The high-quality protein in eggs has been proven to boost satiety - a feeling of fullness after meals, which contributes to maintaining a healthy weight.
During weaning, just one egg provides babies with significant levels of key vitamins and minerals, especially vitamins A and D. Studies show that inadequate intakes of key nutrients in early life can inhibit optimal development or increase the risk of disease.
Despite allergy fears, diagnosed food allergy affects only 1-2% of adults and 5-8% of children, although most children 'grow out' of their food allergies, according to Department of Health advice. To reduce the risk of allergy, it is recommended that babies are offered eggs after six months of age - the point at which the introduction of solids is generally advised.
Dr Ruxton adds: "Pregnancy and weaning are narrow windows of opportunity to maximise health for women and their babies. Eggs are a commonly-eaten, low cost food and are widely recommended as part of a healthy, balanced diet due to their rich nutrient content."