Nausea! Swollen ankles! Heartburn! Oh, and all the tests! While there are plenty of concerns that accompany each pregnancy, remember: This is an amazing time in your life. Enjoy it.
After years of planning, Susan and Steve got the word: The pregnancy test came back positive! Mission accomplished! After hugs, kisses and tears, they headed off to the local bookstore to buy a book promising to guide them through the next nine months of Susan’s pregnancy. Expecting their first child, they wanted to learn and do everything they could to ensure the delivery of a healthy, happy baby.
Susan immediately scheduled an appointment with her obstetrician, but by the end of the first office visit she found herself anxious and unsettled. So many things could happen over the next several months. As time passed, she and her husband’s enthusiasm began fading, replaced by worry. What should have been a wondrous first step in one of life’s most extraordinary adventures had become a fearful experience, full of anxiety and apprehension.
Susan and Steve are no different from countless young couples all over the world through no fault of their own. With all of the advances in modern medicine, many times doctors can lose sight of how amazing, wonderful and precious the experience of bringing a new life into the world should be. In being cautious, obstetricians can convey to patients that pregnancy is a condition in which danger lurks around every corner. It is no wonder that many women spend their pregnancies in an avoidance mode rather than an enjoyment mode.
Testing One, Two, Three
What has prompted this shift in thinking? It has to do with pregnancy being viewed primarily as a medical condition. Technology and testing is readily available and has allowed us to better understand what is happening in the womb and to make adjustments to help bring healthy babies into the world. Unfortunately, it can also cause concerns in expectant parents that are perhaps unnecessary. As couples go through the various tests that accompany pregnancy, it is important to know that most of them are precautionary measures, and a request to have them done does not mean your physician suspects a problem. In most cases, you and your baby are going to be just fine.
Technology also helps your doctor minimize risk to you and your baby. If you are asked to go through a battery of examinations, the wisest approach is to assume the best, unless you are told otherwise. If you are concerned, get information on the reason behind doing the test. Ask if the test is optional. Do not let exams or fear of their results spoil this incredible time in your life. You may find that some of these tests are actually fun, like the ultrasound for example. Most couples find it thrilling to see the first pictures of their baby tossing, turning and growing inside of mom’s tummy. And, of course, you will always remember the magical moment of first hearing your baby’s heartbeat.
Another reason for undergoing various rafts of tests is that as couples delay childbearing until their mid- to late-30s or early 40s, women discover that their bodies are going through natural maturation processes that carry a few more risks in pregnancy than if they were in their 20s. The good news is that millions of women in this age group experience easy pregnancies and give birth to healthy babies.
Now that things are in a more practical perspective, lets redirect your focus on pregnancy. As an obstetrician and a mother of two hearty school-aged children, I like to tell my patients that pregnancy ” like so many things in life ” is what you make it. If you perceive pregnancy as something to be feared and at the very least, endured, it will become just that. If, however, you view it as a positive and exciting experience, you will find it to be one of the most wonderful events you can imagine. I love it when patients tell me how surprised they are that their pregnancy and delivery went so well. As if that should be unusual. I tell them to spread the news! This is an event that most of us experience only a few times in our lives. Each pain, kick and movement associated with this new life growing inside reminds us of the miracle it actually is.
In many cultures, the birthing experience is considered a “gift” to our humanity. In fact, in Italian “to give birth” literally translated means “to give to the light.” The thought is that when an infant is born it leaves the darkness of his mother’s womb and is given or brought into the light. Over the years, I have come to realize that it involves far more than that. When the miracle of childbirth is experienced, regardless of whether you are the mother, father, relative or a close friend, you are given to the light as well. Nothing compares to that moment of witnessing a new life with all of its potential entering our world. When you experience the power of that miracle, you see and understand things that you never saw or understood before. You see the world in a new light, with new eyes.
The Time of Your Life
If you are pregnant, the first order of business is to make a conscious decision to enjoy the experience. The second is to make a commitment to your health and your baby’s health. We are all products, to some extent, of our environment, the world in which we live, the foods we eat, the air we breathe – even the things we love. As your baby grows, it too is the product of his world, which for your child’s first nine months is your body.
Once you become pregnant, it is important to know that each pregnancy is experienced differently. Even if you have been pregnant before, you may find the next pregnancy’s symptoms to be the opposite of the previous one. Not every normal pregnancy will be accompanied by nausea or fatigue. Some women feel great during the early part of pregnancy.
When the second trimester arrives, you generally begin to feel better. Energy and appetite improve. Moms-to-be will recognize the anticipated first signs of the baby moving. Commonly, the movements are described as a fluttering butterfly or bubbles of gas. The new mom’s body will begin to alter so that the outside world can finally appreciate the physical changes associated with the pregnancy.
The early part of the third trimester tends to go smoothly. As the latter days of pregnancy arrive, the body again experiences change. There are new feelings of bloating and cramps, as well as swelling of the feet. Realize these are normal parts of the process as your body prepares for delivery. It will be temporary. You will see your toes and shave your legs again.
Many times this part of pregnancy is also accompanied by back and pelvic pain. This is occurring because your baby is settling into position. If your body is feeling worse for the wear, this would be a great time for a pregnancy massage. It is a good idea to slow down during the last few weeks as you and your baby prepare for delivery.
While you are pregnant, you control the quality of your unborn baby’s world through good health habits, regular exercise and a healthy diet comprised of well-balanced meals to make sure that your infant gets all the vitamins, minerals and nutrient-rich foods he needs (including a good calcium source). Vitamins are an option to supplement your diet, but they do not take the place of good nutrition. One very important vitamin is folic acid. Folic acid, found in green, leafy vegetables and meat, helps prevent birth defects and is advised even before pregnancy starts. You need about 400 micrograms each day. Today many foods are supplemented with this vitamin, so even if you have an unplanned pregnancy, chances are good that you have already consumed an adequate amount of folic acid in your diet.
What else can you do to make your body a healthy place for your baby to grow? If you are a smoker, you should stop. The reality is that smoking can be very harmful before, during and after pregnancy. It increases your risk of a tubal pregnancy, miscarriage, stillbirths and small babies. If you smoke while breastfeeding, it decreases your milk production and slows your infant’s growth. Remember, if family members smoke in your presence, you are exposed to secondhand smoke. When it is your baby’s health at risk, remove yourself from the exposure. Don’t stay in the presence of smoke to be polite.
What about drinking during pregnancy? Many women worry about alcohol consumed very early in their pregnancy when they are unaware of being pregnant. Moderate alcohol consumption during this time should not cause harm. For the remainder of pregnancy, there is no established safe amount of alcohol that can be ingested.
Having an exercise routine in place before becoming pregnant is an excellent idea. It is easier to stay motivated to exercise during pregnancy if you are active in the months beforehand. Exercise also helps your body stay strong for the work (the delivery) that is to come. There are many classes and exercise tapes specifically designed for women in all stages of pregnancy. When working out, it is OK to use arm weights, but be careful about working your abs. Pulling your abdominal muscles inward is fine, but excessively pushing the muscles outward may cause the muscles to weaken and separate in the center of your abdomen.
This Magic Moment
The delivery is the main event of your pregnancy. It is the point when all the planning, preparation and events of the last nine months come to a final and extraordinary conclusion. It is a momentous time when you meet your child for the first time. It is important to not be too rigid in your expectations of how your labor will progress. Nature occasionally throws us surprises! These surprises are a part of the thrill of childbirth. Remember, the goal is to have a healthy baby and a healthy mom when the delivery is over.
After delivery, the body goes through a myriad of physical and emotional changes. Not everyone loses weight at the same rate. Not everyone is successful at breastfeeding. And contrary to recent media attention, not everyone experiences postpartum depression. The majority of women do well following delivery and despite often being sleep-deprived, enjoy this special time at home bonding with their babies.
Through it all, it is important to remember that every pregnancy is different and every birth unique. Life is the most precious of gifts that any of us can receive and to bring a new life into the world is among the most beautiful experiences that life can hold. How we think, feel and pursue this amazing journey is a matter of choice. For me, as a woman and mother, if someone were to ask me to choose a moment in my life that I would like to relive, it would be the birth of my children and to again experience “giving to the light.”
Melanie Dunn is a Nashville obstetrician and mom to two kids. Lisa Abrams is a freelance writer.