11 ways your body can change during pregnancy
Your body goes through many changes during this time. We find out what’s normal, what’s not – and when to seek medical advice.
Your body undergoes many changes during pregnancy, including some you may not expect.
“Hormone levels are changing, your body must deal with the physical demands of carrying a growing baby and, of course, there are all the practical, social and emotional changes involved with bringing a new little person into the world,” says Dr Aifric Boylan, a GP specialising in women’s health.
As your body is working hard to grow your baby, here are 11 common ways it may change throughout pregnancy.
1. Your emotions
Pregnancy can be both an exciting and stressful time, and the increase in certain hormones can also impact your emotions.
“This is such a crucial issue, but it’s often sidelined amid the hustle and bustle of pregnancy and childbirth,” says Dr Boylan.
Some women may feel embarrassed or guilty about feeling sad or stressed at a time that’s expected to be joyful.
“It’s important to know it’s common to feel this way, and by speaking to a GP, midwife or obstetrician, effective treatment can be accessed,” says Dr Boylan.
She recommends that women with a history of mental health issues speak to their doctor or midwife early in their pregnancy, to make sure support is in place to help prevent a recurrence during or after pregnancy.
2. Your breasts
As they get ready for your baby’s arrival, breasts become larger and may become more sensitive and tender to touch.
“The nipples may become more prominent and darker in colour and, in the third trimester, a sticky yellow fluid called colostrum may leak from them; this is an early form of breast milk,” says Dr Boylan.
“Any unexpected changes such as breast lumps, pain, or changes in the skin of the breast should be assessed by your doctor.”
3. Your skin
Yes, pregnancy ‘glow’ can happen where your skin seems brighter than usual. It’s not clear why, but it may be because of increased hormones and blood flow.
An increase of oil in the skin can also lead to ‘pregnancy acne’ but this usually improves once your hormone levels return to normal.
You may also find stretchmarks developing on your tummy, buttocks and thighs, says Dr Boylan.
“Some women are more prone to them than others, and not much can prevent them. It mainly comes down to a woman’s skin type and how quickly her bump grows.”
There’s also an increase in skin pigmentation during pregnancy, most noticeably in the belly button (‘umbilicus’), the midline of the tummy (linea nigra) and sometimes on the face (chloasma).
4. Thicker hair
As well as glowing skin, you may notice that your hair looks fuller and shinier. It’s not growing faster, you’re just not shedding as much hair as usual. And extra shine could be down to hormones.
5. Your bladder
As your baby grows, pressure increases on the bladder and pelvic floor. “This often leads to more frequent urination and sometimes a tendency to leak urine when coughing or sneezing,” says Dr Boylan.
“These issues will usually settle after having the baby, but it’s essential to continue regular pelvic floor exercises after delivery to help the muscles to recover fully.”
Dr Boylan cautions that if you have a burning sensation when you pass urine, blood in the urine, or a sudden increase in urinary frequency, you should see your doctor in case it’s a urinary tract infection, which are more common in pregnancy.
6. Acid reflux and constipation
“It’s thought that hormonal changes in pregnancy may lead to relaxation of the valve at the top of the stomach,” says Dr Boylan. “This, combined with the upward pressure of the growing baby may allow acid to travel back up the oesophagus, causing reflux and indigestion.”
Constipation is also a common symptom during pregnancy in part due to hormonal changes slowing down your digestive system.
“If either of these is causing trouble, speak to your doctor or midwife, as there are effective treatment options.”
7. Varicose veins
Dr Boylan says that the pressure of the growing baby on the pelvic blood vessels can slow down return of blood from the legs, leading to varicose veins.
“While varicose veins most commonly appear on the lower legs, they may also appear around the upper thighs and even around the vaginal opening and vulva, which can come as a surprise to women. They often improve after pregnancy, but may not fully go away.”
You can lessen pain or feeling uncomfortable from varicose veins by walking or swimming regularly and avoiding sitting or standing for long periods of time.
“Venous thrombosis (clotting in the veins) is also more common in pregnant women and can be serious if the deep veins are involved,” she says. “If a varicose vein feels very sore or inflamed, or if you develop a sore, swollen calf or leg, you should see a doctor urgently.”
8. Fluid retention
Women often comment on slight puffiness (oedema) of the feet, ankles or hands during pregnancy. “This is due to increased blood volume, hormonal changes and the physical pressure of the baby pushing down in the pelvis,” says Dr Boylan.
While this puffiness can be normal, any sudden increase in swelling should be checked with a doctor or midwife, particularly if you feel unwell or have other new symptoms. “Oedema can be linked to pre-eclampsia – a serious pregnancy-related condition that causes high blood pressure, headaches, nausea, blurred vision, and if untreated, life-threatening seizures,” cautions Dr Boylan.
9. Back and joint problems
“The curve in the lower back becomes more exaggerated to help counterbalance the growing baby bump, and this mechanical change can lead to lower back pain,” says Dr Boylan.
And an increase of the hormone relaxin makes your ligaments looser and allowing the pelvis to stretch during labour.
While this helps your body prepare for birth, more relaxed ligaments can also cause backache as well as ‘symphysis pubis dysfunction’, or SPD, which is pain over the pubic bone, says Dr Boylan. If you’re having trouble with these symptoms, speak to your doctor or a physiotherapist.
10. Leg and foot cramps
Sudden painful muscle spasms in the legs and feet are common, particularly at night for pregnant women.
“There are probably a few reasons,” says Dr Boylan. “The physical pressure of carrying the baby, a slowing down of blood flow through the veins, as well as changes in hormone levels and various salts in the blood. If they’re happening a lot, speak to your doctor, who may run a few blood tests to make sure there’s no [other] underlying reason.”
11. Braxton Hicks contractions
“After about 20 weeks of pregnancy, Braxton Hicks contractions may occur,” says Dr Boylan. “These are occasional episodes of tightening of the uterine muscle, which tend to last less than a minute.”
Braxton Hicks aren’t usually painful, although they can be uncomfortable. “They may gradually get more intense as the weeks go by,” says Dr Boylan. “True contractions tend to be longer, stronger and happen at more regular intervals.”
If in any doubt, speak to your doctor or midwife, or call your hospital.
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