At first, it can feel unreal when you’re pregnant. But as your pregnancy goes on you start feeling more and more attached to the growing life inside you. Nine months usually feels just the right length of time to get used to the idea of having a baby and get ready mentally for giving birth.
When you’re pregnant, your body changes in lots of ways that help the baby grow and get you ready for giving birth. The only thing is, unfortunately, some of these changes can have less than pleasant ‘side effects’!
Of course you want to give your baby the best chance to grow well and have a healthy start in life. And you need to look after yourself, too!
For women who are trying to get pregnant, there’s one vitamin that’s particularly important: folic acid, or vitamin B9.
If you get at least 0.4 milligrams of this vitamin daily before you get pregnant and early in your pregnancy, your baby is much less likely to be born with serious defects like spina bifida. This is when the baby’s spine doesn’t close up properly.
You can get folic acid from leafy green vegetables, orange juice, or whole grains and pulses. But if you’re trying to get pregnant – or if you find out you’re pregnant – even if you do eat a varied diet, it’s not easy to get enough of the vitamin just from your food.
This means it’s wise to start taking a folic acid tablet every day if you're trying to get pregnant. You can get them from chemists or drugstores.
Pregnancy 'side effect'
First of all, let's be clear: you’re not ill, you’re pregnant! But as your body changes and gets ready for the birth, there can be some ‘side effects’ you’d rather do without.
You might experience all of these 'side effects' or maybe even none at all. But what are some of the things you have to put up with when you're pregnant?
One of the first things you might notice when you’re pregnant is ‘morning sickness’. In fact, this common name isn’t totally accurate, as you can feel nauseous at any time of the day, especially when your stomach is empty.
The nausea is caused by the pregnancy hormone HGC – the one that shows up in a pregnancy test. This does a really important job in stopping your pregnancy from ending prematurely. The unfortunate ‘side effect’ is that it can make you want to throw up.
From around week 12 the sick feeling usually starts to ease off, and by week 16 it’s over because the HGC hormone has done its job and your body stops producing it.
Some women have little or no nausea in the first weeks of pregnancy. Other women hardly feel able to do anything because they feel so queasy all the time. It can help to eat little and often, and avoid having an empty stomach.
During the first months of pregnancy, you may be feeling a jumble of emotions for a lot of different reasons anyway. But just like in the run-up to your period, the hormones during the first months of pregnancy can make you feel moody and irritable. At the drop of a hat, you can fly into a fury or burst into tears.
Having a baby growing inside you takes a lot of energy, and you might find you feel much more tired than usual. When you’re pregnant you need more rest and sleep than you usually do. On the other hand, some women feel bursting with energy when they’re pregnant. If that’s you, enjoy it – there’s no point in resting if you don’t need to. Go with your own energy level.
Especially during the first months of pregnancy you can have a huge appetite – yes, as well as feeling nauseous some of the time. The old saying ‘you need to eat for two’ isn’t really true, you just need a normal, healthy diet.
Don’t worry if you put on a bit of weight – many women do. Later, when the baby starts growing faster, you’ll put on less weight yourself.
Needing the toilet
At the start of your pregnancy, the womb grows fast and starts pressing on your bladder. This makes you need to pee more often. Eventually, the womb starts growing upwards so it doesn’t push down on your bladder as much. Only at the end, the baby’s head can start pressing on your bladder again.
As your womb gets bigger, it pulls down on the ligaments that hold it in place in your pelvis. This can cause cramp-like and stabbing pains in the abdomen.
Your boobs are getting ready to produce milk for your baby. Right from the start your breasts start getting bigger and can feel tight and tender. The stretching skin can also be itchy.
The veins in your breasts get bigger, so if you’ve got pale skin they can show through. This goes away after you stop breastfeeding – though when the whole experience is over your breasts will be a different shape. You’ll need a good, supportive bra when you’re pregnant to keep your breasts comfortable and stop them sagging.
Especially if it’s your first baby, your nipples get a bit bigger so the baby can latch on more easily. They can also be more tender. The areolae – the area around the nipples – also widen and the skin gets darker. They can also develop little bumps – these are glands which produce a grease to help keep the skin of your nipples supple.
When you’re pregnant, everything needs to relax and stretch – first to make room for the growing baby, and eventually so your cervix and vagina can open up for the baby to come out. The hormone that makes this happen is called progesterone. Unfortunately, it also has some side effects.
The muscles in your bowels also relax. This means they can’t push the food through your intestines as quickly as they normally do. Your stool gets harder, and you can get constipated.
Piles and varicose veins
Another side effect of progesterone: it makes your veins relax too. At the same time, you’ve got more blood circulating in your body when you’re pregnant. This can give you varicose veins in your legs – the extra pressure on your softened veins makes them stretch and they can work their way to the surface of your skin. They can give an itchy and uncomfortable feeling.
Another nasty place you can get varicose veins is in your anus. Then they’re known as haemorrhoids or piles. These are itchy, sore bobbles on the inside or outside of your anus. And if you’ve got constipation, the pushing and straining can make them worse.
All in all, progesterone does a great job making you stretchy so your stomach can grow and you can push out the baby. But the side effects are a pain in the backside – literally!
Mother and baby health tips
How can you do your best to make sure your baby develops well and is born healthy? And look after yourself at the same time? Here are a few of the most important tips.
- Stop smoking
Stop smoking. Well, you’ve probably heard that one before!
Cigarette smoke is full of poisonous chemicals, and they all very easily get to the baby. So if you smoke, your baby smokes too.
And this stops it from growing properly. The babies of smoking mothers are born smaller. What’s more some research shows that they’re more likely to have a clubfoot. Later in childhood, their lungs don’t work as well. And they’re more likely to die around the time of the birth.
This tip also applies to your partner or the people around you when you’re pregnant. When they smoke, you breathe the smoke, and your baby smokes too.
Babies who live in a smoky atmosphere are more likely to die in their sleep for no obvious reason – this is called ‘cot death’. So it’s also important not to smoke after the baby is born – or at least not in the same room as the baby.
And of course, if you give up smoking you’re also looking after yourself! You know it’s bad for you, and now you’re pregnant you’ve got an extra important reason to kick the habit.
Help to stop smoking
Depending on your situation, early pregnancy can be a stressful time. This makes giving up smoking seem extra difficult. But there are lots of places to find tips and help.
Try reading 'The easy way to stop smoking' by Allen Carr – it helped millions of people to give up smoking. You can also download it here.
2. Don't drink alcohol
Don’t drink alcohol. Like the poisonous chemicals in cigarette smoke, alcohol easily gets to the baby. So if you drink, the baby drinks too. Alcohol stops the baby’s brain from developing properly – and really heavy drinking can cause birth defects.
Can just one drink do any harm? Well, researchers find it hard to say. It’s not easy to tell whether small amounts of alcohol have any effect on the baby. But as soon as women drink a bit more – say two glasses of alcohol a day – their babies are born a bit smaller than normal. So just one drink certainly can’t be doing the baby any good. That means the only safe advice is not to drink alcohol when you’re pregnant.
- Don't take drugs
Don’t take drugs. Cocaine is particularly nasty – it cuts off the blood supply to the baby and can really cause a lot of damage. Hashish, or marijuana, has less dramatic effects. But as with smoking tobacco, the babies of people who smoke cannabis when they’re pregnant are born smaller than normal.
It’s the same story with amphetamines, or speed, or crystal meth. And women who are hooked on heroin give birth to addicted babies. They’re small, they cry a lot, and they lie trembling in their cots. In short, it’s the same story as for smoking and alcohol. If you take drugs, your baby does too. And it always has a bad effect.
- Be careful with medication
Be careful with taking medicines – especially during the first three months. Some medicines can seriously harm your baby. Just because you can buy a medicine over the counter at the chemist or drugstore, it doesn’t mean it’s safe to take when you’re pregnant.
Read the instructions with medicines carefully to see if they’re okay for you to take. You can also ask the staff at the pharmacist’s or drugstore to check for you.
If you normally take medicines for an illness, talk to your doctor about it preferably before you get pregnant. If you find you’re pregnant unexpectedly, see your doctor as soon as possible.
Paracetamol (or acetaminophen) are okay to take – though it’s best only to take them if your doctor recommends it, perhaps to bring down a fever. Normal doses of either aspirin or ibuprofen may increase the risk of miscarriage in the first three months of pregnancy.
Ideally, you should avoid taking medicines when you’re pregnant – only take them if your doctor advises that it’s really necessary.
- Wash your vegetables
Wash your vegetables, and make sure your meat is well cooked. Some kinds of food poisoning can also infect the baby.
Toxoplasmosis is caused by a parasite. You can get it from raw meat and unwashed vegetables – and famously it’s in cat stool! Although it doesn’t make you very ill it can damage your unborn baby’s brain or eyes. Also, avoid unpasteurised milk – or cheese made from unpasteurised milk. It can give you a Listeria infection, which can cause a miscarriage or premature birth. Boiling milk or pasteurising it (briefly heating it to 72 degrees Celsius) kills the Listeria bacteria.
Recipes for regret
- 'I didn’t want the baby anyway, so I don’t care if I have a miscarriage.'
- 'I don’t care if the baby is small – at least it will make the birth easier.'
- 'I don’t want to get fat – if I stop smoking I’ll put on weight.'
These are all really bad reasons not to look after your body and the baby inside you by stopping smoking, drinking or taking drugs. If you wish you weren’t pregnant, risking your own and your baby’s health won’t solve the problem.
As the pregnancy goes on, the fact that you’re having a baby will gradually feel more and more real. And when the baby’s born, suddenly it becomes very real indeed! Having a baby can make you see things in a very different light. If you’ve been persuading yourself it’s okay to do things that can harm your baby, you risk having to live with serious regrets.