Feeling tired is one of the most common pregnancy symptoms and something so many mums-to-be experience. In fact it’s so common we even have a name for it at MadeForMums – ‘preghaustion’.
“Your body works very hard during pregnancy and the first and third trimesters are the most common times to feel tired,” explains award-winning dietitian and health writer, Dr Carrie Ruxton from The Health & Food Supplements Information Service.
For many of our mums tiredness can be really debilitating; “I end up asleep on the sofa by about 8pm and am tired all day,” says Poetgirl over on our forum.
Jonesy 23 agrees: “I just have no energy at all. I usually get up between 7am-7.30am, walk the dogs for 45 mins, then start work at 9….2 days this week I have needed to go back to sleep before 9am. I just couldn’t keep my eyes open!”
And when we feel tired one of the easiest things to do is reach for a sugar-based snacks like a bar of chocolate to try and boost our energy levels quickly.
“It’s often just habit that means we go for quick ‘go-to’ snacks like a chocolate bar as we think it will give us the quick energy fix we crave,” says Dr Ruxton. “But they are just empty calories and don’t provide the nutrients our body actually needs.
“Regularly snacking on refined carbs can increase the risk of gestational diabetes due to the constant fluctuations in blood sugar levels. Eating too much sugar in pregnancy is also linked with tooth decay as our teeth are more susceptible in pregnancy.”
Eating for 2 in pregnancy – the myth
Of course it’s normal to put on weight in pregnancy, and according to the NHS most pregnant women gain between 10kg and 12.5kg (22lb to 26lb), putting on most of the weight after week 20.
The amount our mums gain really varies. SW33 says “I’ve gone from a size 8 to a size 16 at 38 weeks…from 9 stone 4 to 12 stone…” But emmajemma says: “I’m 19 weeks and have put on just over a stone!” And for PB_Mcgee it’s different again; “I’m 25+2 and have only gained 1lb in weight so far..”
So there is no ‘average’ weight gain – but one thing experts agree on is that eating for 2 is just an old wives’ tale.
“The NHS says we don’t need to ‘eat for 2’ in pregnancy and only need an extra 200 calories during the last 3 months,” says Dr Ruxton.
“That’s why it’s even more important to not fill up on sugary, fatty snacks that really won’t help with tiredness.”
To put it into perspective – 200 calories is a glass of milk and an apple or 2 small slices of toast with a small spread of butter and jam.
What our body needs to beat tiredness
Health claims approved by the European Commission suggest the 2 main nutrients we need to stop feeling tired are: iron, found in food like red meat, beans dark green vegetables; and B vitamins – which are found in protein foods such as meat, fish, eggs and cheese.
“You should be eating protein food 3 times a day to support fetal growth,” explains Dr Ruxton. “While red meat is the best source of iron because it contains a form easily absorbed by the body, eggs, beans, pulses and fortified breakfast cereals are good options too.
“Pregnant women may need iron supplements on top of the recommended vitamin D and folic acid tablets, especially if they are not getting enough iron in the diet, so talk to your midwife.”
The best foods for energy boosts
“If you eat a healthy diet during pregnancy and stay physically active then there is a really good chance that your energy levels will improve,” says Dr Ruxton.
“But if you are feeling sluggish and need an energy boost then you should get it from starchy carbohydrates such as bread, pasta and rice. It’s also worth taking a daily pregnancy multivitamin plus minerals, particularly if you’ve not been eating well due to nausea or fatigue.
“Go for whole grains as they are more of a slow release carbohydrate and will keep you going for longer.”
Meal planning in pregnancy
To ensure you are eating healthily and staving off tiredness, Dr Ruxton advises planning in advance as much as possible.
“Some days you might be less tired and in the mood to cook so make a few batch meals and put them in the freezer.”
Try some of these ideas for healthy meals to keep tiredness at bay:
Chilli: Use lean beef mince which is rich in iron and B vitamins – both good nutrients for combatting tiredness. If you are veggie, swap the meat for mixed beans, spinach and a blob of Marmite which is fortified with B vitamins.
Veggie curry: Add in lentils, peppers and kale, or throw in some prawns which contain healthy marine fats.
Or if you need a quicker convenient meal try these ideas:
Stir fries: a quick meal if you’re exhausted and so healthy. Try using lean pork which is a great source of protein. Or just plenty of veggies for variety. You can have it all cooked and on the table in literally 10 minutes.
Cold food: you don’t have to slave over a home cooked stew for hours to be healthy. Buy some cold meats or smoked fish for protein and a bag of salad and serve with some nice crusty whole grain bread for your carbs. It’s a delicious and healthy meal and made in minutes.
Eggs: your go-to for a fast, nutritious lunch. Make an omelette and add what you fancy like tomatoes, ham, herbs or grated cheese for extra nutrients. Eggs are one of the few natural foods that contain vitamin D which supports immune function and bone health.
Healthy breakfasts for pregnancy
Many of our mums like xxxxBOOxxxx feel especially exhausted in the mornings: “I feel like I’ve only had 1 hours’ sleep even if I had a full night.
“It makes no difference what time I go to bed either but up to about 9.30am I am really struggling to keep my eyes open. It’s awful.”
“If you’re tired in the mornings prepare a healthy breakfast the night before so you’re not tempted to reach for the pain au chocolat,” says Dr Ruxton.
“Try bircher muesli; throw a handful of oats into a bowl (for carbs) and cover with apple juice. Add 2 tablespoons of natural yogurt, apples, and a few nuts and raisins. Leave in the fridge overnight and you will wake up to a nutritious breakfast that will set you up well for the day.”
Avoiding the sugary snack trap
“While you may be doing a great job of eating healthily at mealtimes it’s probably snacking that is really letting you down,” says Dr Ruxton.
“According to the Government’s National Diet and Nutrition Survey, women typically get one quarter of their daily calories from snacks, sugary drinks and treats. While these provide fast energy, they lack the crucial vitamins and minerals for a healthy pregnancy.”
That was certainly the experience for MrsJonesinwaiting over on our forum. “When I was pregnant with my son, I ate [junk food] which was really bad of me and I put on 4 stone. My baby was 8 lb 14oz.”
But during her second pregnancy she swapped her favourite sugary treats for fresh fruit. “With my second baby I had healthy food and had fruit when I wanted something sweet. Mangoes and pineapples were great. The second time I put on 15 pounds. My baby was 7 lb 3oz.”
Dr Ruxton suggests trying one of these 3 nutritious snacks which will also give you that crucial carbohydrate hit for energy:
- whole grain toast with peanut butter
- two oatcakes with a slice of cheese on each
- a small bowl of high fibre breakfast cereal with milk and chopped banana.
But even with the best will in the world it can be really hard to eat healthily all the time. Sometimes only chocolate will do.
First up don’t feel guilty if you do reach for the odd ‘treat’, just don’t do it all the time. “Sometimes we do just need a hit of something sweet and that’s OK,” says Dr Ruxton. “Allow yourself a treat day. Or go for dark chocolate or just a small amount. But do stop there!”
“Also, It’s sound obvious, but don’t have things like biscuits and chocolates in the house. Instead make yourself have to go out and get them and the desire to have them may wear off before then.
“If you always have a cupboard packed full of treats, it’s going to be pretty hard to resist!”
Remember there’s a lot going on when you’re pregnant, and diet is just one of them – to feel a bit more supported, why not join an online support group like the SMA Baby Club where you’ll get a welcome pack, personalised emails to help you from pregnancy to toddlerhood, 24/7 expert advice from their Careline and lots more.
What to do if you’re feeling sick
For some of us sadly, however tired we are and want to eat we just feel too nauseous to hold anything down.
“I was put off all food and certain smells,” recalls mum Ysmummy. “I avoided foods that made it worse – I had to stick to bland foods such as salads and sandwiches.”
Ginger can be good for sickness; “But try drinking ginger tea rather than reaching for the ginger nuts!” says Dr Ruxton.
”Just try a little of something you fancy and make sure you don’t eat and drink at the same time as this may make you feel more sick. Dry food is better.”
Celebrate your body
Overall remember that pregnancy is an exciting time when you are actually growing a baby. As Dr Ruxton says:
“And when you’re feeling tired don’t immediately turn to food as the answer. Have a drink of water or get some fresh air and exercise and you should immediately feel better and have much more energy.”
Top Ten Tiredness Busting Pregnancy Foods
Nutritionist Dr Emma Derbyshire from the Health & Food Supplements Information Service and author of Nutrition in the Childbearing Years shares her top fatigue-zapping foods:
1) Bananas: They provide potassium, folate and B vitamins. The sugars in bananas are naturally occurring (fructose, glucose, sucrose and maltose) and can help to raise blood sugar levels, providing a portable energy boost. So the phase ‘bananergy’ is for good reason.
2) Yeast extract: This is packed with B vitamins to help knock pregnancy tiredness and fatigue on the head – particularly useful in the later trimesters of pregnancy.
3) Eggs: They are packed with nutrients to help give energy levels a boost in pregnancy. A single boiled egg provides a good dose of selenium, vitamin A, vitamins B2, B5, B12, folate and phosphorus. (Do be sure to choose eggs produced under the British Lion Code – look out for the red lion stamp.)
4) Avocados: These are also a good source of B vitamins, which help the body’s cells to produce energy. So why not have some eggs for breakfast with a slice of avocado?
5) Lean red meat: This is an important source of absorbable iron, which is an important nutrient in pregnancy. Iron is needed for red blood cell production and helps to prevent anemia.
6) Fortified cereals: These help to top up dietary intakes of vitamins and minerals. Many cereals these days are fortified with iron and B vitamins but do go for the lower sugar varieties.
7) Quinoa: This super seed provides significant amounts of vitamins and minerals and the grains provide a sustained energy release. A great option to include in a lunchtime salad.
8) Oily fish: Oily fish provides an array of nutrients including omega-3 fatty acids that are needed for brain function for mum and baby alike. Try to eat 2 portions of fish per week (a portion=140g).
9) Dark chocolate: A few cubes of dark chocolate provide theobromine, which has been found to improve mental energy and mood.
10) Water: In pregnancy it’s also important to feed the body with water. An expectant mum needs an extra 300mls on top of the required 2 litres per day. Dehydration can lead to fatigue.
If you’re currently pregnant, have a baby or toddler, check out SMA® Nutrition’s Mother Of All Checklists – a free web app co-created by mums to help you stay on top of your parenting to-do lists.