No matter how conditioned we are to it, the miracle of life will never not be awe-inducing. Whether it’s your first kid or your seventh, the love of parent and child is a feeling that words can only do so much to describe. For those who want it, however, it can be challenging to navigate pregnancy amidst all the inner and outer changes, dangers to consider, and societal expectations of what it “should” look like.
Approximately 61 million women in the United States are of childbearing age (15 to 44), and by the time they reach their early 40s, around 86% of them have become mothers. Though it’s all around us, carrying life for 40 weeks, three trimesters, or a little more than 9 months is no easy feat. Here’s some guidance on what to expect and how to navigate every checkpoint along the way.
Conception is the initiation of your pregnancy journey, though it’s certainly not as easy as it’s made to seem. For those trying to conceive, you’ve got a short ovulation window every menstrual cycle to work within. In an average 28-day menstrual cycle, ovulation typically occurs about 14 days before the start of the next menstrual period for 12 to 24 hours. However, each person’s cycle length may differ, and the time between ovulation and the beginning of the next menstrual period can vary.
There are many reasons why falling pregnant may be complicated for an individual, ranging from damaged fallopian tubes to age to hormone imbalance. Some of these conditions, including endometriosis and adenomyosis, not only make conceiving difficult but also can elicit a high-risk pregnancy, shares scientific director of MIT’s Center for Gynepathology Research Linda Griffith. “For those who do become pregnant, endometriosis increases the chances of miscarriage, preterm birth, and a condition called placenta previa, in which the placenta forms over the cervix, increasing the risk of dangerous bleeding during labor and delivery.”
Because of these possible roadblocks, many turn to natural methods to boost their fertility, from raspberry leaf tea to consistent sessions of acupuncture. Luckily, when all else falls, we are part of the generation that has both built and benefitted from technological innovation, especially in pregnancy. Options like surrogacy and IVF have helped many of those struggling with conception to achieve motherhood.
In vitro fertilization, commonly known as IVF, is a form of fertility treatment in which an egg is fertilized in a laboratory with sperm, allowing the embryo to develop before being transferred to the uterus to increase the likelihood of pregnancy. This method is usually turned to once more straightforward treatments to boost fertility are deemed unsuccessful.
Whichever route you take to get there, seeing that faint plus sign on your pregnancy test is the very beginning of a transformative and miraculous journey.
Your First Trimester – 1 Week to 13 Weeks
Marked by morning sickness and rollercoaster hormones, your first trimester is typically the most taxing to get through, though luckily, it tends to go the fastest. Your body is going through a major transformation by suddenly growing new life, so it’s essential to be patient with yourself and assist your body in any way you can, from drinking plenty of fluids to eating ginger for nausea.
Many confuse PMS symptoms for early pregnancy symptoms due to their overlap. You may find yourself experiencing:
- Mood swings
- Swollen breasts
- Nausea and vomiting
- Heartburn and indigestion
- Food cravings and aversions
While many are put off by the phenomenon, losing weight during the first trimester is not uncommon. This is typically due to changes in appetite and sudden shifts in lifestyle. However, this should end within the first few weeks and it’s imperative to begin your prenatal care the moment you’ve become aware that you’re carrying.
Upon your first hospital visit, you’ll assess your overall health, identify any risk factors with your pregnancy and determine your baby’s gestational age. To calculate your due date, your healthcare provider will typically count 40 weeks from the first day of your last menstrual period. After this first visit, you’ll probably be asked to schedule checkups every four weeks for the first 32 weeks of pregnancy.
Danger Signs of Pregnancy in the First Trimester
While these all aren’t necessarily indicative of something dire going on, they’re all worth addressing as soon as possible to rule out any danger.
- Cramping and/or bleeding from the vagina
- Low pelvic pain
- Severe pain or cramping
- Pain or burning with urination
- Severe nausea or vomiting
- Rash or unusual skin sore
Emotionally, you’re also confronted with the reality of parenthood during your first trimester, which can be terrifying and euphoric all at once. It’s important to surround yourself with an uplifting team of loved ones who can support you during all the emotions pregnancy can bring.
Your Second Trimester – 14 Weeks to 27 Weeks
Entering your second trimester can feel like a big sigh of relief. Many of the most daunting symptoms may be diminishing, though some new ones are certainly introducing themselves. These include:
- Bigger belly and breasts
- Changes in skin
- Nasal drip
- Leg cramps
Your second trimester may also introduce you to Braxton Hicks contractions. These are mild, irregular contractions that feel like a slight tightness in your abdomen, usually felt after physical activity. They could, however, be a sign of preterm labor if they become regular and increase in strength, so it’s important to contact your doctor immediately.
Similarly, it’s important to keep an eye on your discharge. Changes in texture and consistency are completely normal, and you may notice yourself producing more sticky, clear or white vaginal discharge. It is only cause for concern if the discharge becomes strong smelling, unusual in color, or accompanied by pain and itchiness in your vaginal area.
Many inquire “When do you start showing in pregnancy?” The second trimester is your answer. Typically, a pregnant person’s bump becomes noticeable between 16 to 20 weeks. This, however, can of course vary from pregnancy to pregnancy.
With an increase in energy from your first trimester to your second, this is a good window of time to engage in light exercise, take childbirth classes, and prepare for parenthood by learning as much as you can. At this stage, the highlight of your prenatal visits might be listening to your baby’s heartbeat and finding out their sex, if you choose.
Creating a Birth Plan
There’s nothing more unpredictable than labor, and chances are, things may go a little differently than you envision. However, it’s helpful to cultivate a birth plan and get clarity on what matters most to you during the process. It also serves as a helpful way to communicate to your healthcare team what kind of labor you’d like what you want to avoid.
Usually thought about during the second trimester, some important points to cover in your birth plan include:
- Where you’d like to give birth
- Who you want as your birth partner
- Your preferred labor positions
- The type of pain relief you want to use during labor
- If you’d like music during labor
- Plans for your placenta
- Request for special facilities, like a birthing pool
- If you have any special requirements, including religious customs to be observed.
Your Third Trimester – 28 Weeks to Delivery
The most uncomfortable leg of your journey, the third trimester is when your stomach is at its largest, making it difficult to navigate everyday activities like sleeping and walking. This is the best time to invest in a pregnancy pillow, as your baby’s size and position might make it hard for you to get comfortable.
Alongside the anxiety and anticipation, you can expect symptoms like:
- Braxton Hicks contractions
- Shortness of breath
- Frequent urination
You’ll also most likely be seeing your doctor more often. During the third trimester, you may be asked to come in every two weeks beginning at week 32 and every week beginning at week 36. Because you’re the closest to delivery, your third trimester is when you’ll be taking more screening tests for things like gestational diabetes, iron deficiency anemia, and Group B strep. These are common precautions to ensure the safest possible arrival of your newborn.
By this home stretch, your full-term baby m is usually between 19 and 21 inches long and between 6 and 9 pounds. They’ll also begin to pivot head-down in preparation for delivery. At week 36, the baby’s head should begin to move into your pelvic area, also known as lightening. It will stay in this down-facing position for the last 2 weeks of your pregnancy.
READ MORE: How To Fight Third-Trimester Nausea
It’s also important to remember that while the due date is a guiding light, it’s incredibly common for it to come and go uneventfully.
While by this stage you would have opted for either a C-section vs vaginal birth, ultimately, that decision lies in the organic course of events during labor. It’s also possible that you may be induced. This is when your healthcare provider provides you with medicine or uses other methods, like breaking your water, to help initiate your labor.
During active labor, your cervix will dilate from 6 centimeters to 10. Your contractions will become stronger, closer together and regular. If the discomfort ever reaches a level of unbearable, you can request pain medication or anesthesia. Speaking up and advocating for yourself is crucial during your entire pregnancy, but especially in this stage. “Historically, women were expected to ‘tough it out’ when it came to pregnancy,” Dr. Kristin Myers says. “For the most part, the sentiment was if someone is facing a pregnancy problem, then that is their problem, not a societal problem.”
While your healthcare team will partner with you to make the best choice for you and your baby, only you can truly evaluate your level of pain and tolerance. The intensity will wax and wane over the course of hours (and sometimes, days) but can be managed by breathing techniques, different physical positions, and a supportive team and labor partner.
While unpredictable and at times painful, labor doesn’t have to be dreaded. Your body was made to be able to handle birth, and with proper research and preparation, you’ll make it through stronger than ever and reap the greatest reward of all: motherhood.