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How your body can change during pregnancy
10 significant ways your body can change during pregnancy
Published 18 Aug 22. 4 minute read

 

You’ve heard about morning sickness but finding tea unpleasent? Pregnancy brings about a whole host of physical, mental, and emotional changes and Vhi Midwife Support Service Manager Breda Crotty has seen them all. Here she talks about 10 noteworthy ways it might affect you…

Even early pregnancy can bring about big changes in a woman’s body. Then when you try to work out what’s normal and what’s not, the amount of information can be overwhelming. Being in midwifery for a long time, I trust my instincts as to what I’m seeing. I could detect a pregnant woman from 50 paces! And I know the key in early pregnancy is giving women the right information, so they know what’s normal. With that in mind, let’s look at 10 significant areas of potential change. As ever, if you think something’s not quite right from there, always go and seek medical advice.  

1. The various ways your body can grow

Your heart rate will increase as your blood volume expands by approximately 50%. Then, once your baby’s born, it generally reverts to pre-pregnancy state – though it can take up to six weeks to go back to normal. Some women have said to me, “God, my feet are bigger!”. And while feet can actually grow as the bones, ligaments and tendons loosen and relax, it is most likely just swelling. However, if you notice sudden swelling or swelling associated with other symptoms, consult your GP as this can be a sign of pre-eclampsia or other pregnancy-related issues.

Along with your belly, your milk ducts and mammary glands grow. So much so that, by six weeks you can find you’ve gone up a full cup size. The areola will also get larger and darker, with the small bumps around them – Montgomery glands – also enlarging. Your nails and hair can also get an unexpected spurt, with hair occasionally appearing on the chest, abdomen, and arms. This may be annoying but is usually harmless and likely to go away after you give birth.

2. Skin sensitivity (and that healthy glow)

As your pregnancy progresses, you’ll become more photosensitive. This means sunlight affects you more, so take care with the sun factor when you’re outdoors. Melasma, dark patches on the face or tummy, can occur in the second or third trimester and will fade after your pregnancy. Itchy skin and acne can affect some women. If you’re persistently itchy, seek clinical advice to get it managed. You might also see a thin brown line running from belly button to your pubic bone. This linea nigra is perfectly normal and is caused by increased levels of melanocyte-stimulating hormone, oestrogen, or progesterone. When these deplete post-pregnancy, the line will also fade.

One thing you’ll be looking forward to is that “healthy glow”! It’s true that, particularly around the second trimester, pregnant women should look healthy and well, their hair silky and skin glowing. It’s lovely to see people at that gestation, enjoying being pregnant and radiating happiness.

3. The myth of “morning” sickness

On the other hand, you can feel nauseated very, very easily. It’s a bit of a misnomer to call it “morning” sickness because you can wake up with it during the night and feel ill throughout the day. It can be overwhelming and hard to control, at its strongest in the early stages of pregnancy. Thankfully, most women would find that it settles by weeks 16-20. If it returns later, this could be acid reflux due to pressure on your larger abdomen. Try to stay well-hydrated and eat small, regular amounts of “bland” food like dry crackers to help you settle. If you are concerned about the sickness and cannot tolerate food or fluids consult your GP for advice.

4. Changing tastes

Some women will also have the unusual symptom of excess saliva. I’ve come across women who have had to use towels because they keep salivating. It’s very rare and we don’t know why it happens, it’s just the way hormones affect people. You can also get a metallic taste in your mouth early on. This “dysgeusia” can be quite unsettling but it should dissipate as you move into the second trimester. Sparkling water and other cool drinks can help.

Expect your tastes to alter in more orthodox ways. A lot of women go off tea and coffee. That’s actually how I realised I was pregnant with one of my daughters. I just looked at a cup of tea one day and thought, ‘right, I’m off again!’. It’s linked to the tannins in those drinks, which can hinder your iron absorption. The body is fascinating, and really brilliant.

5. Stronger smell

You can get a heightened sense of smell, particularly in the first trimester. Where this gets tricky is when you also have nausea around food. Some women even choose to eat cold food because they can’t tolerate cooking. To help manage it, open windows when you cook. You should also make sure you’ve no lingering smells or strong perfumes on your clothes and use a saline wash on your nose. Surrounding yourself with more pleasant smells will help your system, ginger and cinnamon are generally very popular.

6. More trips to the toilet

Women really don’t expect the increase in urinary frequency. Hormonal changes and your growing uterus affect the bladder, which can be a real nuisance in the workplace. A lot of women will also experience constipation as their bowels slow down. Haemorrhoids can arrive and be very painful.

A few tips around this would be to stay active, drink plenty of fluids – at least 10 glasses a day –and eat a high fibre diet. Think whole grains, porridge, beans, and lentils. Putting a stool under your feet and leaning slightly forward with your elbows on your knees when using the toilet can also help. Take slow, easy breaths and don’t strain. Your healthcare provider can also supply mild laxatives.

7. Varicose veins

Weight changes and hormones can lead to varicose veins. You might notice the appearance of tiny red “spider” veins on your legs, along with itchiness and discomfort. Rest often and avoid standing for long periods. Sleeping on your left side, with a pillow between your legs as your pregnancy progresses, can help. Wearing compression stockings will squeeze your legs to improve circulation. Regular exercise and raising or stretching your legs will also aid blood flow. Low-salt diets can prevent swelling from water retention. As varicose veins can be a risk factor for deep vein thrombosis, check in with your doctor to make sure you’re treating them appropriately.

8. Muscular-skeletal changes

The relaxin hormone is released in early pregnancy and basically alters your biomechanics! This loosens the ligaments around your pelvis, so that it can expand during birth. It’s completely normal and necessary but it has to be managed properly. Along with the growing uterus stretching your abdominal muscles, it will affect your core strength. This means additional pull on your lower back. Women can also develop pelvic girdle pain, which can be managed by seeking advice from a physiotherapist. In general, advice from a well-trained physio around pregnancy is a great help here. Yoga and Pilates are also very beneficial, as long as your instructor is aware of your pregnancy.

9. Mood swings

You’ll feel a range of emotions as your body changes. Some anxiety is normal during such an uncertain time. Your mind will be running a mile a minute, worrying about yourself and your baby. You’ll feel very sensitive of those around you – and the “advice” they offer. People can make sweeping statements that cause upset, even if they don’t mean to. I’ve had it happen to me. I remember having swollen ankles at 28 weeks and someone saying, “oh God, your legs shouldn’t be swollen!” without them knowing what they were talking about. So just try to focus on the trusted, clinical advice. And, when it comes to anxiety, remember it’s important to recognise when you’ve reached your “cut-off” point of what is manageable. If you are struggling, talk to someone.

10. Baby brain – and the nesting instinct

Along with the emotional upheaval, pregnancy can play havoc with your head in other ways. From a physical point of view, you might get more frequent headaches due to increased blood volume. The progesterone hormone can also cause light-headedness and dizzy spells in early pregnancy. To counteract this, stay well hydrated, stick to cooler room temperatures, and sit down as often as possible.

While not all expectant mothers will experience it, ‘baby brain’ is a very real thing for many. This is a catch-all for the forgetfulness, memory disturbances, poor concentration and even difficulty reading that can come about due to hormone fluctuations. All you can do is account for this with forward-planning when necessary and by going easy on yourself.

On the positive side, you should get an adrenaline surge towards the end of your pregnancy. This “nesting instinct” will help you kick into gear, as you start busily preparing the “nest” for the coming baby. You should do all of that, of course, in a safe manner and without overreaching yourself.

A turbulent, fantastic time awaits…

As you can see, there’s plenty to take in. While things like varicose veins will require proper treatment, most of the changes mentioned won’t last long beyond your baby’s arrival. It’s important to accept how your body changes. In time, you’ll get yourself back to “normal”, but there might be a few reminders of the momentous event. Some stretch marks, for instance – which will fade over time and may be helped by some creams.

It’s one of the most turbulent times in any woman’s life, but it’s a fantastic experience. Even if it can be a bit scary. Being overwhelmed – a bit tearful, a bit worried – is all part of it. Not being able to control what’s happening can be a challenge for some women, particularly high achievers and those used to high-stress environments. The best thing you can do is draw on the resources around you. And if you really feel that you need help, or that your mood is particularly low, always go for some expert help.

 

This content is for information purposes only and is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek advice from your GP or an appropriate medical professional if you have concerns about your health, or before commencing a new healthcare regime. If you believe that you are experiencing a medical emergency call 999 / 112 or seek emergency assistance immediately.

Meet our Vhi Verified Expert

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Breda Crotty

Vhi Midwife Support Service Manager

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