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Your belly is going to grow larger, and perhaps your feet will too. This much you already know about pregnancy. But what else happens to your body? And is there anything you can do to manage it?
Having a baby will be, by far, the best thing that ever happened to you. But the rearranging of various body parts that comes along with this miracle can catch you by surprise. It helps to know what’s going on so you can maintain at least some semblance of control. Here’s an insider’s guide to seven common body changes.
1.A mucus plug is not a stuffy nose.
Drinking wine is discouraged during pregnancy-and yet, in an ironic twist, when pregnant we are, essentially, corked. Let me explain. Pregnant women have a mucus plug, a snot-like glob clustered around your cervix that seals the cervical opening and protects the developing baby from bacteria and infection. My doctor had not mentioned to me that the mucus plug was there and could potentially “fall out” as my body prepared to birth. Fortunately, I’d read about it in a pregnancy book. My plug came out a few days before labor during a bathroom break at work and looked like a thin spread of mucus on my panties. Another friend lost her plug in a similar way a few weeks before she delivered. It usually happens when your cervix begins dilating, but not every woman loses it—or notices it—before she gives birth.
2.Support your legs so your veins don’t pop.
I once ran into a friend at the community swimming pool who was pregnant with her second child. Her first pregnancy had left her legs smooth and unmarred. Her second pregnancy produced different results. “Veins are popping out all over the place,” she said, in a hushed, private tone that implied the legs of which she spoke belonged to someone else: Surely hers would return at some point. Your blood circulation increases when you’re pregnant, and this can create more stress on your veins. Your growing uterus puts pressure on the veins leading to your legs. You are also producing more progesterone, which relaxes your blood vessels. The chance of getting varicose veins increases with each pregnancy, and tends to be hereditary. If you care, make sure you wear support hose as much as possible during your pregnancy. Don’t stand for long periods of time, and support circulation by elevating your legs when sitting for long stretches. Exercise helps, too, as does staying within the recommended weight range for your pregnancy stage.
3.Say good-bye to your vagina as-is.
It’s sad to bid farewell to an old friend. Those of us who grew up after the book Our Bodies, Ourselves was published may have spent some time with a mirror getting to know our private anatomy. You may even love yourself down there. If this is true, be prepared to fully let go of what once was. After a vaginal delivery, your genital area will never again look the same. It’s not that it looks bad, it’s just that it looks different—especially if your skin tore during birth, or if you had an episiotomy. The space inside of your vagina will always be a little larger, your vaginal lips stretched open, especially right after birth. Over time, you regain muscle tone, and kegel exercises help, still it’s never the same. Had I thought this through, I would have planned a grieving ritual, or at least taken a Polaroid of my pre-birth anatomy, to place on a private photo shrine along with pictures of loved ones no longer with me. Even after you’ve moved on, you can fondly remember the way things were.
4.Body fat creeps everywhere, then goes away
You may naturally have little dimples of fat on your bottom, or your tummy, or the underside of your arms. It’s part of you, and not a problem: In fact, it adds to your womanly beauty. Well, when you’re pregnant, these fat dimples creep out from their normal resting spots, the ones you’ve come to accept as uniquely you. They push forth to claim areas you’re not yet willing to relinquish. The backs of your legs. The fronts of your legs. Your calves, your upper arms. Have they no mercy? Pregnant fat creep happens to even the fittest among us, in large part due to pregnancy hormones. This past summer, I saw a formerly svelte and toned yogini at the neighborhood swimming pool, still fit yet enveloped in a thin layer of just such pregnancy fat. The good news is that, miraculously, about seven months to a year after you’ve given birth, if you’ve been eating reasonably and exercising moderately, the fat creep goes away. Just because it ventured forth once, you’re not stuck with it for the rest of your life.
5.Baby leaves tummy, tummy sticks around.
I birthed my daughter on a Wednesday, and invited my team of employees over to my home to meet her the next day on Thursday. Thinking I looked pretty good, just one day after birth, I pranced around in my workout pants as I showed her off. Later, one of my single co-workers said to me, “You are the first person I’ve seen who’d just given birth, and I didn’t realize women still looked pregnant, even after the baby is out.” My shoulders drooped when I heard this, but I realized it was true. I still had my belly. Long before I had my own baby, a friend had once described for me her tummy after birth, and I was shocked. “The baby is out, but you still have this soft mound of belly that’s rolling around and you don’t know what to do with it,” she’d said. Compared to when the baby was inside you, your tummy does look smaller, but even if you normally have a flat stomach, be prepared to have a pregnant-looking belly for at least a month or so after your child is born. Your tummy is like a balloon that has been inflated and needs time to deflate. Post-birth hormones kick in to help this happen, but it takes time. Your uterus takes about four weeks to contract to normal size. Cells that swelled during your pregnancy release their fluid, and gradually your belly shrinks back down.
6. Support your breast area; it’s much bigger than you think.
If you thought your breasts were small, they’re not. If you already have large breasts, then prepare to bring in the industrial harnesses. Most of us have no idea of the actual area of our breasts until they fill with milk. The milk-filled ducts swell over into our armpits. They creep up toward our chins. Your self-breast exams to screen for cancer will never be the same, now that you fully realize how large your breast area is. Your milk-engorged breasts could stand on their own—but don’t let them, unless you don’t mind sagging once the milk is gone. I spent one day walking around my house, fully immersed in the beauty of my bare milk-filled breasts, once a B-cup and now miraculously a triple D, until a close friend, also a mother, informed me that it is the stretching of the Cooper’s ligaments, not the filling of the milk, that makes breasts sag. When these ligaments lose their strength and tension, breasts lose their structural integrity. A proponent of integrity in all areas, I immediately popped my newly large breasts back into their cases—a sturdy nursing bra by day, and a more relaxed nursing bra for night—and am happy to report the ligaments were saved.
7. Birth hurts, but post-birth sleep deprivation hurts more.
I’d heard the details of birth that you aren’t supposed to hear before having your own. When my sister birthed her first child, I asked how it had gone and she reported, wide-eyed from her hospital bed, after back pain and a large-headed infant, “It was bone against bone.” Hey. Wasn’t she supposed to protect not-yet mothers from this information? Another friend had described the ring of fire—the moment the baby’s head crowns and starts to push through the cervix. Sure enough, that’s exactly what it felt like, a burning circle of stretched-out skin. Expecting this ahead of time allowed me to actually savor the experience, pain and all. I was unprepared, however, for a more difficult part of having a baby: sleep deprivation. Not the kind that happens right after birth, when you feel so euphoric you don’t care whether you’re getting enough. No, the impact of sleep deprivation that compounds over time. You hit a no-sleep wall at about six weeks. The novelty wears off and you desperately require your ZZZs. For some, if your child is not a sleeper, this need stretches on and on. One, two, sometimes up to three years. Take it seriously right after birth, and do what you need to do to teach your baby healthy sleep habits so you can sleep too. It’s natural to want to tend to every cry, but over time you’ll be a better parent if you are present and well-rested.
Jean Weiss had a baby six years ago and despite all the changes, she still loves her body.
Daniel McNeive, MD, is board certified in obstetrics/gynecology and in private practice at St. John’s Mercy Medical Center in St. Louis, Missouri.