Breathlessness in Pregnancy

Feeling breathless while pregnant can be scary - but should you be concerned if you find yourself gasping for air?

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We all expect a bit of huffing and puffing when we’re pregnant, right? 🌬️

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After all, we’re carrying around another person inside us, and our bodies are getting used to all kinds of unusual and sometimes uncomfortable changes.

But suddenly finding yourself breathless – like the wind’s been knocked out of your sails – can be a concern, especially if it’s the first time you’ve experienced it.

Breathlessness can happen at any stage of your pregnancy, and while it can sometimes be a symptom of anaemia, it’s also a pretty common side effect on its own, and is often nothing to worry about…

Is breathlessness in pregnancy normal?

It is quite usual for mums-to-be to experience shortness of breath at some point during their pregnancy, and in most cases, it’s just another part of pregnancy that’s uncomfortable, and it will not harm your baby.

The reason it happens is simple: your body is better at using its oxygen supply than it was pre-pregnancy, so whilst it may feel as though you’re struggling to get air into your lungs, rest assured that neither you nor the baby will be starved of oxygen. 

“I’m only 15 weeks and just starting to be tight around the waistband,” says mum-to-be walks on our MFM forum. “I find myself puffing away at the smallest exertion,”  

But MFM mum Sweetheart reassures that the feeling doesn’t last forever:

“Hang on in there! At 34 weeks (and 37 years old!) and was really struggling. I felt like an OAP! Then bubs dropped last week after aquanatal and now I can breath and eat again!”

In some cases, but by no means all, it can be a sign that you might have anaemia.  

Could breathlessness mean I’m anaemic?

It is possible that shortness of breath is a sign of low iron levels or anaemia – as your body has to work harder than usual to pump oxygen around your body, which is what causes you to breathe ‘harder’.

This was the case for MFMer kazzakazza, who said: “I mentioned it to my midwife a couple of weeks ago and she said it could be a symptom of anaemia or low iron. She took my bloods and lo and behold, it came back with low iron.”

If you’re concerned, ask your doctor or midwife for a blood test. You can also try eating more iron-rich foods like red meat, eggs and dark green vegetables, as well as foods rich in vitamin C, which help you to absorb the iron.

It’s worth noting here that the NHS website advises that anyone with shortness of breath – sudden or otherwise – should speak to their GP. 

Why do I get breathless?

In your first trimester: you’re adapting to pregnancy – and the pregnancy hormone progesterone helps you to inhale and exhale more deeply. Studies have shown that pregnant women consume 10-20% more oxygen at rest, and the feeling of taking in more air than usual can make it seem like you’re out of breath.

In your second trimester: some pregnant women will only get short of breath from around halfway through their term, but for most women, the sensation and frequency increases gradually as their bumps grow. If you have gained a lot of weight during pregnancy, you may feel more breathless. If have concerns about how much weight you’ve gained, check out our guide to weight gain in pregnancy.

In your third trimester: your uterus starts to push up into your diaphragm (the muscle that sits at the bottom of your rib cage and helps you breathe). This puts more pressure on it, which can increase the sensation of breathlessness. If your baby is lying high up in your womb, you’ll feel the pressure even more.

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Will I feel breathless throughout my pregnancy?

If you’ve got a low bump, you might escape the feeling of breathlessness altogether! For many women, the problem eases off once the baby ‘drops’ down or engages in the weeks leading up to the birth – which is usually around 36 weeks.

More than likely, feeling short of breath will come and go during the course of your pregnancy and it will be different for everyone. 

“I was breathless quite a lot early on,” MFMer gemgems13 said.

“I found it got better in the middle but I’m now near end with the baby’s feet in my ribs I feel quite breathless going up stairs again.”

What can I do to prevent getting breathless while pregnant?

  • Avoid heavy exercise! Seems obvious that running up stairs probably isn’t a great idea when you’re pregnant anyway – not least because people may see you huffing and puffing, assume you’ve gone into labour and call an ambulance 😂
  • Light exercise like walking or swimming is good for you, as staying relatively fit during pregnancy can help alleviate the feeling of heaviness and breathlessness.
  • Yoga, pilates or meditation can also be beneficial as they help you to focus on and control your breathing. Bonus: breathing exercises also come in rather handy when you’re in labour!
  • If you find you get out of breath most often when you are seated, try standing up and taking deep breaths. Try to stay calm or relax by closing your eyes.
  • If you suffer more when you are lying down, try sleeping with your body more propped up with pillows. If you wake up feeling breathless, sit up slowly on the side of the bed. Take care not to move too suddenly if you also suffer from pregnancy leg cramps, as these can be set off when you spring to action without warming/stretching your calf muscles.
  • If you’re at work or in a stuffy room, sit near a window that you can open.
  • Drink more water. Always have a bottle of water with you. Even if you don’t fancy drinking any, try dabbing some water around your mouth or just inhaling the air from the water bottle.

One MFM mum advises that the best way to deal is to try not to panic:

“It was making me panic a bit at first but I have got a wee bit more used to it. I have found that doing nothing does help!” a_thistle wrote.

Should I see my doctor if I’m worried about it?

Most women get a bit out of breath when they’re pregnant and the first time can be so frightening, but usually, you don’t need to see the doctor.

However, if you’re really concerned, you should speak to your GP or midwife, just for some peace of mind. 

That said, you absolutely should see your doctor if you experience pain when breathing, feel faint, are getting heart palpitations, notice an irregular heart beat or you struggle to breathe when you’re lying down.  

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