How many people think only of the cliches when it comes to pregnancy? Morning sickness and cravings. Maybe a little waddling thrown in toward the end.
Instead, think: carpal tunnel, difficulty breathing, restless leg syndrome, insatiable itching, kidney stones, varicose veins in very uncomfortable places, unrelenting drool and so much more. No, these are not the dire health issues that are also associated with pregnancy (preeclampsia, hyperemesis gravidarum, etc.). And perhaps that’s the problem: If pregnancy symptoms aren’t directly threatening to the baby or to the mother, they are often ignored.
“With pregnancy, we’re told be comfortable with this, it’s normal and natural,” says Nancy Redd, author of “Pregnancy OMG: The First Ever Photographic Guide for Modern Mamas-to-Be.” “There are just so many things that don’t get spread around. I had a lot of them happen to me.”
Did you know, for instance, that 5 percent of women grow a third (sometimes lactating) breast? (Yes, photo on Page 44.) “There’s just so much secret shame and taboos,” Redd said. So she set out to shed light on body changes during pregnancy in her enlightening book.
“I was always told that my hair would grow, but mine fell out. My eyelashes fell out. When I was pregnant, I jotted down all the things happening to me. I was on air, so you could see it happen,” says the journalist. “I would go on mommy boards … filled with women trying to diagnose their own issues.” So she cross-referenced about 40 things that aren’t uncommon but aren’t talked about.
“I was most surprised about how many things can happen to a woman in the 10 months that she’s baking a baby,” Redd says. “For many of us, we’re so thrilled to be pregnant that we’re embarrassed to complain.” But it’s not complaining, she argues. To be the best mother possible, you need to be the healthiest you can be.
“After the baby is in there, you’re just getting ultrasounds. We become so fetus-focused, but I want to be more than that,” Redd said. “We can’t just let our bodies go to pot.”
In a recent discussion at On Parenting’s Facebook page, there was talk of many pregnancy problems. One mom reported bleeding gums. “Kidney stones, like crazy,” said another. Extra drooling. Permanent foot growth (goodbye size eights). Hernias, muscle tears. Carpal tunnel. One lost her sense of smell (it returned after giving birth), and another said her ears were plugged up during her pregnancies for months at a time.
And, of course, there are the diagnosable issues that have names that a lot of people don’t know about. PUPPS, for one, where the discomfort level is astounding and symptoms are mostly extreme itchiness. Some women are induced early because they can’t sleep, walk or function due to the intensity of it. “I had SPD (Symphysis pubis dysfunction),” one woman wrote. “I felt like my pelvis was going to split in half starting at 16 weeks. By the end of my pregnancy, I could barely walk up steps, pick my legs up to get dressed, get out of the car. Sitting was painful. Standing was painful. Regular labor was out of the question.”
“There are things that happen that are unusual and folks don’t know, going in, that they might happen,” said Annette Fineberg, an OB/GYN at Sutter Health in Davis, Calif. She started listing some, too: numbness, sciatica, vaginal vericose veins, headaches, reflux, hair growth and hair loss. (“My leg hair stopped growing with all my pregnancies,” wrote one woman on the Facebook discussion. “And — even weirder, my eyelashes fell out with my first two (girls) but not my third (boy)!”)
Fineberg explained the reasons behind many of the symptoms. Kidney stones? Ends up they’re pretty common in pregnancy. Part of the reason is that a woman’s uterus is rotated and blocks the ureter a bit, she said. You don’t make more stones, but the small ones we naturally have are simply harder to pass.
The gum and nose bleeding? There’s a massive increase in blood production when you’re pregnant. Which is also likely why women are so tired, Fineberg said. “Your body is working so hard in the beginning.”
Stuffy noses and ears? There’s a higher level of estrogen, which can cause nasal passages to swell, she explained. The hideous varicose veins that appear, um, everywhere? Hormonal, and blood vessels “get looser.” Also, the baby presses on the vena cava, the biggest vein in our body. And, well, ouch.
And as for the many other aches and pains: There are simply a lot of nerve-related issues that pregnancy causes, and those usually go away as soon as the little one finally arrives, she said. She agrees that many moms-to-be suffer in silence.
“Women are more isolated than you realize,” Fineberg said. Pregnancy classes are a help. “There’s some education and camaraderie, and these symptoms are sort of normalized.”
After three pregnancies, one a miscarriage, Redd realized “you are being invaded by another body. Women go through a lot of different emotions.” Knowing what’s normal and what’s not, and realizing that it’s okay to talk about it, can help.
“We’re second bananas to the babies. If you ask a pregnant woman, ‘How was your last check up?” She’ll say, ‘Well, the baby’s heart beat was X.’ No one actually thinks ‘How are you doing?’ or ‘How is your body?’ ” Redd said. “America is not the best when it comes to maternal education and care. So it’s up to us to take care of ourselves.”