Sharing your experiences with friends and family is one of the joys of pregnancy, but certain embarrassing pregnancy problems aren’t so easy to talk about.
Every mum-to-be knows to expect morning sickness and cravings during her nine months, but you might well find there are some embarrassing pregnancy symptoms you’re not prepared for. But if no one warned you about leaky boobs, piles and excess wind, don’t fret – our guide to what’s what and how to sort the problem should save your blushes. And remember, doctors and midwives have heard it all before, so if in doubt, just have a quiet word.
Bloating and wind
Many mums-to-be find they suffer from bloating, as the high progesterone levels of pregnancy slow the digestion. What’s more, bacteria can then make any undigested material ferment, leading to flatulence and burping – not ideal for your yummy mummy image! And in later pregnancy, your womb puts pressure on your stomach, making you feel more uncomfortable after eating.
To ease symptoms, keep a food diary to track down your major culprits, but make sure you still follow a healthy diet that includes plenty of fibre.
Try eating several small meals slowly throughout the day, too, rather than a big meal in the evening. Avoid fried and fatty foods, which can increase bloating, and cut out fizzy drinks and chewing gum.
Consult your doctor before taking any over-the-counter medicines, however, and if gas ever feels like contractions or is accompanied by blood when you use the loo, severe diarrhoea or increased nausea and vomiting, see a doctor.
Haemorrhoids, or piles, are swollen veins (internal or external) in your bottom, which are caused during pregnancy by the increased pressure on your abdomen making your blood vessels swell. High progesterone levels and straining due to constipation can also make veins dilate.
Symptoms to look out for include itching, pain or bleeding in the anal area, and hard lumps protruding from your bottom.
You should consult your midwife before buying any over-the-counter creams, but there are other ways to minimise problems.
Ensure you eat plenty of fibre (fruit, vegetables, pulses, bran) and do regular gentle exercise to avoid constipation.
Applying an ice pack can soothe pain, and you should wash your bottom after each bowel movement to keep the area clean.
To relieve the pressure on your abdomen, meanwhile, try to lie on your left side for 20 minutes every few hours. And don’t worry – piles disappear a few weeks after the birth.
Nutritionist Dr Rana Conway has these tips to help relieve haemorrhoids in pregnancy:
- Try not to strain when having a poo. Relax your pelvic floor muscles and try to breathe deeply.
- Avoid standing for too long. Try lying on your side instead of your back.
- Try regular swimming. Or some other gentle exercise to help improve your circulation.
From mid pregnancy onwards, you may find that you leak a small amount of urine when coughing, sneezing, laughing or running around.
“Stress incontinence is caused by the pressure of the growing uterus on the bladder, and weak pelvic floor muscles,” explains Gurminder Matharu, spokesperson for the Royal College of Gynaecologists and Obstetricians. And those pesky progesterone levels can also contribute to leaks, as progesterone is a muscle-relaxing hormone.
Consult your doctor, who may suggest exercises to tone the pelvic floor muscles – but of course you should be doing these anyway, to strengthen your muscles in preparation for labour! Always use the toilet when you need to, and obviously you can wear a pad if you want some extra protection. Thankfully, bladder weakness will usually clear up within a few days or weeks of the birth, as your muscle tone returns and hormone levels go back to normal.
In mid to late pregnancy, you might find you experience a little leakage from your breasts. This isn’t actually breast milk, but colostrum – the high-protein substance that the breasts produce to feed your newborn (breast milk isn’t produced until three to four days after the birth).
If colostrum forms a crust on the nipples, keep them dry and wash them twice a day. When you are out and about, wearing breast pads inside your bra will absorb the fluid and prevent embarrassing patches appearing on your clothes. You can occasionally stop leakage by using your wrist or the lower part of your palm to press gently against the nipple, but don’t do this too often as it could result in a plugged milk duct.
And try not to worry – just think, your body is gearing up to feed your baby!
Thrush is an overgrowth of yeast that leads to itching, burning and soreness around the vagina, and a yoghurt-like, yeasty-smelling discharge. High oestrogen levels, decreasing vaginal acidity and increased amounts of a type of sugar called glycogen inside the vagina (which the yeast feeds on) make thrush a common pregnancy problem, but it’s nothing at all to worry about.
Your doctor will be able to prescribe some cream or vaginal pessaries, and you can help yourself by wearing loose cotton underwear and always wiping from front to back after going to the loo.
When it comes to food, be sure to include yoghurt with lactobacillus acidophilus (‘friendly bacteria’) in your diet and also limit your sugar intake, as sugar promotes the growth of yeast. Get plenty of rest, too, to help your body to fight infections.
Thankfully, the unpleasant symptoms of thrush should improve after the birth, when hormone levels drop.
Constipation is another extremely common pregnancy problem and, like bloating, is caused by high progesterone levels slowing down your digestive system.
Symptoms include going more than four days between bowel movements, hard faeces that are difficult to pass and a feeling that not all the faeces are being passed. Taking iron tablets can also cause problems (talk to your doctor about switching to a different brand if necessary), as can dietary changes.
Once again, eating plenty of fibre is a good way to prevent problems, along with drinking plenty of liquid (at least six glasses a day).
Gentle exercise should also help to stimulate the digestive tract. But if these measures don’t help, talk to your GP for advice about laxatives.
Here’s how to avoid constipation in pregnancy:
- Include fibre in your diet – wholewheat cereals, brown bread, fruit and vegetables are great sources.
- Drink lots of fluid – you’ll need even more if you’re eating extra fibre.
- Go to the toilet when you first feel the urge (often after a meal) and, if you have toddlers, try to make sure that they don’t interrupt you.
- Some laxatives are safe to use in pregnancy. Ask your GP or pharmacist to advise you.
“I have never had a problem with constipation in my life, but when I was pregnant not only did I find I got ‘bunged up’ really easily, but I also I found I couldn’t ‘strain’, for want of a better word!” says Lucie, 34, mum to Tallulah, now 2. “I started drinking more water during the day, which really helped, plus when I was on the loo I found it really helped to read something and then all was well. Even if I was just reading the side of a shampoo bottle, it took my mind off the job in hand!”
Urinary tract infections (UTIs)
During the nine months of pregnancy, progesterone enlarges and relaxes the bladder so that it empties less efficiently. Bacteria in the urine left behind can then multiply, making urinary tract infections (UTIs) like cystitis much more common. Symptoms include burning or stinging when you pass urine, wanting to go urgently but only passing a small amount, sharp, low abdominal pain and a raised temperature.
You should see your doctor right away, as UTIs can develop into a kidney infection, which can be dangerous for both you and your baby, especially in the last trimester.
To ward off UTIs, drink lots of water to flush out your system, wear cotton underwear and keep the vaginal and perineal areas clean. Cystitis can occur for up to six weeks after delivery as the bladder returns to normal.
Itchy legs or varicose veins
Varicose veins (swollen, bulging veins, often found in the legs) can occur during pregnancy because your growing womb puts pressure on the large vein on the right side of your body, which then increases pressure in the leg veins. Hormonal changes can contribute, but while they can cause itching or discomfort, or make your legs heavy and achy, varicose veins are generally not a major cause for concern and will improve after the birth (although occasionally they may require surgery).
To prevent them, avoid excessive weight gain during pregnancy, avoid crossing your legs, put your feet up whenever possible and don’t stand or sit in one position for long periods. Many mums-to-be also find that support tights or flight socks really help.
“To ease itching, try a moisturiser containing chamomile or calendula. Staying cool will also help – use sheets instead of a duvet and take cool baths,” advises Dr Lowri Kew, GP.
However, itching can be the sign of something more serious. “If your palms and soles are persistently itchy, this may mean you have a condition known as obstetric cholestasis,” says Dr Lowri.
“This is when the bile produced by your liver to help you digest food doesn’t empty out of the bowel as quickly as normal and some of the chemicals go into your blood and cause itching.
“Obstetric cholestasis occurs in about 1 in 100 pregnancies, and symptoms usually develop in the last trimester. You’ll be given a blood test to confirm that you have it.”
According to sleep specialist Chris Idzikowski at the Edinburgh Sleep Centre, around 30% of women experience sinus congestion during pregnancy – which can cause snoring.
Once again, high progesterone levels are the culprit! They dilate nasal passages, causing them to swell and partially block the airways.
Homeopathy to ease congestion can be helpful, but make sure you see a qualified homeopath. Helen Savill, specialist at Oeuf Clinic and Therapy Rooms, suggests burning myrtle oil (safe in all trimesters) in your bedroom to ease breathing. You can also try massaging the area between the eyebrows and the sides of the nose towards the top to relieve blocked sinuses. Sleep on your side rather than on your back, and if your partner’s really complaining, you could try wearing a nasal strip (available at most chemists) to keep your nostrils wide open.
Lack of sex drive
It’s not uncommon to experience loss of sex drive during pregnancy. Reasons vary, and can include concerns about your baby, fluctuation in hormone levels, tiredness, your swelling tummy and difficulties adjusting to the idea of becoming a mother.
Denise Knowles, sex therapist at Relate, stresses that it’s important for couples to focus on the ‘quality’ rather ‘quantity’ of sex during pregnancy, and to keep their expectations realistic.
And if your sex drive has really taken a nosedive, she feels it’s important to keep intimacy alive in other ways, such as kissing, caressing and cuddling.
Remember, you won’t feel like this forever. Your libido should improve after the birth, though not necessarily right away, as you’ll have lots to occupy yourself! If you are finding it difficult to talk to your partner about any concerns, you should talk to a counsellor.