How to Look after Yourself during Pregnancy

Nicola Flanagan FEDANT registered Perinatal Educator, Postnatal Mum and Baby Coach, Antenatal and Hypnobirthing Teacher, Perinatal Mental Health Practitioner and Birth Trauma Therapist

Pregnancy and early parenthood is a time of rapid transformation, with a host of physiological and psychological changes occurring in a very short space of time.

It can often feel like you’re on a rollercoaster ride someone told you that you should really enjoy, however, one minute you are feeling great and you’re excited, and the next moment something is different. This can be very unsettling, and these dramatic changes can make you feel anxious or worried about the ride ahead. 

It’s perfectly normal if you feel in free fall from time to time, and don't worry, you will most likely find your confidence again once your baby is born and safely in your arms. Balance will return to your physical and emotional self as you recover in the fourth trimester and begin to identify more comfortably with your role as a new parent.

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Many women imagine that the ‘not being able to see your feet’ window towards the end of pregnancy will be the most challenging time for them! Yet long before this stage, you can be easily caught off guard by the many physical and emotional changes in each trimester of your pregnancy and in those early weeks and months after birth. There are hormonal changes affecting your mood and body, anxiety-inducing scans and tests, a growing and changing body, changes in your relationships with partners, family and friends, changes in identity from finishing work and lifestyle changes, the list goes on.

So many things can leave you feeling distant from your pre-pregnancy self that you weren’t expecting and it’s common to feel unsure how to navigate these changes. In society we are still learning to open up about the emotional challenges of entering parenthood, and the physical ones are often still addressed in a mere ‘hope for the best’ type manner.

As a woman in today’s society, perhaps you have felt the need to work up to your due date and had very little time to emotionally prepare for the change? Perhaps you live far from family and close friends who could provide physical and emotional help and support during this vulnerable time? Maybe the influences of social media and our heavy consumer society has left you feeling pressured to spend a small fortune on the very latest baby items and document every day of your journey with a smile pasted on your face for Instagram, when deep inside you are fighting a much bigger bundle of intertwined emotions, unable to show them to the world?

Wherever you are in your journey into motherhood, take a deep breath, pause for a moment, then read my suggestions to help you feel more balanced and relaxed.

Below I have put together some helpful tips and things to consider during the different stages of pregnancy and early parenthood. Hopefully these tips and ideas will help you move through these moments of challenge and assist you in finding a new state of calm and confidence as you continue to move forward.

First Trimester

From the moment you pee on that stick and see a positive result, you enter a whole new world of excitement and worry. If it is your first baby you may feel even apprehensive for the unknown journey ahead, and if you already have other children, you may be worrying about how you’re going to manage one more. Whatever your unique circumstances, you know that you’ve just stepped onto a life-changing roller coaster, and the main thing all pregnant women have in common during the first trimester is the feeling of utter exhaustion!

Tiredness

This is a time when your body is busy laying the foundations of two new organs at once- not just your foetus but also its placenta, and boy, does it suck every last drop of energy out of you.

Finding the time to rest during the day, or reducing your load as much as possible to make time to rest really does help. Don’t be afraid to rearrange your social diary to give yourself evening off to catch up on sleep. (If you are anything like me, then even the office floor looked like a comfortable enough spot for a nap during my first trimester!)

Skin, Immune and Digestive Health

During this early window of pregnancy, you may be more susceptible to picking up coughs and colds, you may experience changes in your skin condition and you may suffer from bouts of nausea as there are rapid changes in your body’s hormones. If, for many reasons, you are feeling deeply anxious or stressed at this time, you may also find that your digestive system suffers as a sympathetic nervous system which is hyper-aroused reduces the functions of the gut.

Start taking prenatal vitamins and supplements to support the growth of your baby and boost your immune system. Eat regular small meals and snack consisting of simple, nutritious and easy to digest foods – especially if you find yourself suffering with nausea or changes in our normal digestion and gut motility.

If you find you aren’t able to keep food or water down for long then speak to your GP or midwife as you may be experiencing Hyperemesis Gravidarum which needs treatment and support for you and your baby to stay well.

Keeping the Secret

Often people don’t share their early pregnancy status with others, so many of the physical and emotional challenges of the first trimester are kept from others who would be able to offer support, compassion and advice.

You may wish to consider confiding in close friends or family members who can support you through the coming weeks and months. If you don’t feel comfortable with that then you can always join some ‘good quality’ social media groups around pregnancy and antenatal care to access supportive communities and up to date information. Just be conscious of what you fill your news feed with, as images of pregnant models may not do you any favours, where are posts from organisations promoting positive birth, safe baby care and emotional wellbeing are likely to be more informative and supportive.

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Try probiotics researched especially for pregnancy

Second Trimester

As you move into the second trimester you are likely to have started to outgrow your regular clothes as the uterus moves up out of the pelvis. The foundations have been laid and this is a time of foetal growth. Having had your 12-week scan and some screening tests too, you may be feeling relieved or you may be feeling more anxious...everybody’s experiences are different and equally valid.

As your body changes more rapidly during the second trimester you may feel delighted to be more visibly pregnant to others, however you may also begin to feel less confident in yourself. However you feel, you need to start to consider the impact of this period of growth and support your body cope with these changes.

Staying Active and Regular

Continue to exercise with safe sports and routines. If you are not a terribly active person, you will benefit from antenatal yoga type movements and stretching to allow your body to ease any tensions or discomforts that may arise from your changing body. 

As your baby takes up more of your abdominal space you may suffer with slower gut motility. Make sure you eat plenty of easily digestible foods and a variety of fibre plus drink plenty of water. Your body increases it’s blood volume by 1/3 when pregnant, as well as constantly producing amniotic fluid to surround your baby- so keep that water bottle in close reach!

Antenatal Education

As your mind starts to focus more on the big event ahead, you may feel tempted to stick your head in the sand a little longer. However, investing time during the second trimester in antenatal education is so important.

Once you begin to dive into this area you will be amazed how much less scary you thought it might be. Focusing on building your confidence, understanding your choices and growing a toolkit of labour and birth techniques and knowledge is invaluable.

Don’t leave it to the 34th week of pregnancy to find space on a good course, and look around as there are lots of different ones on offer from Hypnobirthing, Active Birth, Natural Birth etc. You may find working with a small independent FEDANT registered educator to be more personal and supportive, or you may want a big group experience. Surprisingly, both tend to cost about the same so don’t delay- research a good antenatal course and start your journey into all things labour and birth now!

The ideal time for an antenatal course is from 20-32 weeks, meaning you still have time to do further research and embed the learning into your birth planning with your caregivers.

Mental Health

For many women, perinatal anxiety or even feelings of depression can show up around this time. 1 in 5 women will suffer from perinatal mental illness either during their pregnancy or in the year after the birth of their baby, it can come and go on a day-to-day basis.

Hormones in pregnancy can impact your feelings and mood greatly, but if you feel you are experiencing windows of deep sadness, anxiety, lack of interest, low mood, tiredness or loss of appetite then it is so important that you overcome any fear of seeking support.

It is important you pause to become aware of how you are feeling and if things are feeling very different. Make time in your week to relax in whatever way works best for you and become aware of your emotional state. Speaking to your midwife or GP about any worries can be really reassuring and helpful as they can provide you with some further support. Other organisations such as the PANDAS Foundation and MIND offer online and face to face support for the perinatal window, as private perinatal mental health practitioners offer bespoke 1-2-1 support to move through these changing feelings.

Third Trimester

Woohoo- you’re on the home straight! It feels like you’ve been pregnant forever and there is still another 12-14 weeks to go, but many women start to really connect with their baby now and look forward to meeting them soon.

For you and your baby this is a time of rapid growth and often discomfort. Although all of your baby’s main organs and features have finished growing, they still need to develop and prepare for life outside of your lovely safe womb, so they are busy packing on the pounds.

Getting Ready for Baby’s Arrival

This is the time for getting organised with baby things, work handovers, childcare/petcare/grandparent admin for the big day and those first few weeks where you may want some more support. It’s also a time to write your birth plan and discuss any concerns with your caregivers to ensure your individual needs are planned for.

Monitoring Baby’s Movements

As your baby grows bigger you will be experiencing lots more movements such as large rolls, kicks and wriggles throughout the day and night.

It is important that you start becoming more aware of your baby’s movements in the third trimester and if you feel they are moving less then contact your local midwife or Day Assessment Unit to get checked out. The only way your baby can tell you something is wrong is to preserve energy and move less- so kicks really do count!

For more helpful information on this, please see the Kicks Count Website.

Be Kind to Yourself

As your baby continue their rapid growth window, perhaps you are starting to feel like a baby whale? Some women are fortunate enough to experience this trimester without too much discomfort, however some may be feeling very uncomfortable with their body changes. Others may feel like they are really suffering with sore hips (SPD/PGP), indigestion, heartburn, constipation, piles, stretch marks and an inability to get comfortable in any position!

Whichever of these hypothetical women you can identify with, what all women in the third trimester need is a good dollop of self-compassion. It is not easy, for many reasons. The emotional and physical symptoms of pregnancy can be more challenging in the final few months so don’t suffer alone.

For SPD or PGP try and see a physio, keep your kneed together whenever possible (like the queen exiting a car) and consider a pelvic support belt. For heartburn there are lots of OTC remedies, or safe prescriptions you can ask for from your GP. Apples are also fantastic at quashing evening heartburn. So many great Mum-2-Mum tips can be found in support groups too!

Sleep Issues

Tiredness is back for many women now too, accompanied by a squished bladder and bouts of insomnia making night time sleep harder to attain. We often joke amongst ourselves that it’s your body’s way of getting you used to the sleepless nights to come. But in fact, it is no joke at all and lack of sleep can lead to feeling of anxiety and worry about how you may cope once the baby arrives.

The good news is that once your baby is here, the hormone changes in your body make it much easier to deal with broken sleep (within limits). We are designed to do it, and it feels much less hard than perhaps you are worrying it will be right now. Try and relax, and remember that good quality rest is just as restorative for your body as actual sleep. Perhaps listening to some guided relaxation or meditation audios when sleep alludes you would help?

If you’re exploring hypnobirthing, then this is a good time to relisten to the tracks to help the positive messaging embed into your subconscious, whilst providing you with a calm and relaxing opportunity to lay back and rest.  

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Fourth Trimester

Yes, there is a fourth trimester! It is the first twelve weeks postnatally where you and your baby recover from labour and birth. Depending on how your birth went and how your baby is, this experience may or may not meet with the vision you had in your mind. To be honest, most women would probably say that it was very different compared to what they imagined.

The key to the fourth trimester is to be kind to yourself, forget everyone else (if possible) and just focus on you and your baby. You are both learning new skills, recovering from a big physical event and getting to know each other.

The First Week

Generally, most mothers survive for the first week on adrenaline, oxytocin (the hormone of love) and broken patches of sleep. The first week can feel like a foggy blend of feeding, nappies, day and night and cold tea.

Ensure you have a good supply of nutritious, easy to digest food around, and preferably someone to bring it to you whenever you get a spare hand free! Drink plenty of fluid and wear comfortable clothes. There is no need to be out and about meeting the world, your baby just wants to spend lots of time close to you for you both to learn each other’s rhythms.

Skin to Skin

Newborns develop their microbiome and gut flora during the birth process, early feeding and skin to skin with their mothers. A baby’s microbiome is a fascinating area of modern research and is being linked to many health experiences in a child’s later life.

In the early weeks it is wonderful to spent lots of time skin to skin with your baby. It has so many benefits for regulation, comfort and establishing breastfeeding too. So don’t rush to get out of bed in the morning. Spend some more time skin to skin with your newborn and rest if you can- you’re not being lazy- you are seeding their microbiome!

Trust Your Instincts

Babies can experience a host of different challenges in the fourth trimester, from jaundice and sticky eyes to colic and reflux, tongue tie, intolerances, torticollis in the neck and much more.

Staying in touch with your midwife and health visitor team, as well as having contact details for specialists such as Lactation Consultants and Cranial Osteopaths can really help overcome these challenges quickly. A worry left unexplored can become an area of discomfort and distress for a baby and make mothering that much harder. If in doubt, ask for help. Trust your instincts as a mother and keep going back if you don’t get the immediate support you need.

Socialising

As you begin to emerge from the fog of the first week with your new baby you of course want to show them off to the world. However, you may not want a constant stream of visitors at your house and may not appreciate to extra work of house guests.

Be open and honest with your partner, friends and family about your needs and those of your baby. They need to take priority in the coming weeks, despite other people’s wishes. There is plenty of time to visit friends and family, but juggling everything into the car for the day and ending up with an overtired, over-handled and stressed baby who has been passed around from person to person all day is very difficult to comfort, and a mum who has not had the comforts of her own home to manage postpartum bleeding, breastfeeding and rest is going to be equally overwhelmed. Try not to agree to doing too much. Get comfortable saying ‘no thank you’, both for you and your baby.

Taking Advice

Unsolicited advice from parents, aunties, friends and neighbours can be intrusive and undermining to your confidence. If you have invested the time to research what is right for you and your baby, don’t feel you have to justify and defend your decisions to others. This is your baby, and you are doing the best you can for them.

If you need help or advice then say you will ask for it, but otherwise a few choice phrases can go a long way to maintaining our own confidence in mothering:

- “Thank you for sharing that, I’ll consider it.”

- “Thanks, I will do some reading up on that.”

-“That’s not how we want to approach that, but thanks.”

- “That’s really interesting, but for now I’m following the advice of my midwife/health visitor as the current guidance has changed in this area.”

But most importantly, just get comfortable saying “No”.

Nicola Flanagan
Nicola Flanagan - perinatal coach and founder of MAMBA UK

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