You're probably all too familiar with the numerous aggravations — morning sickness, heartburn, and leg cramps, just to make a few — that plague expectant moms. Sometimes, in fact, pregnancy may seem like little more than an unpleasant means to a happy ending. But believe it or not, a baby isn't the only good thing you get out of childbearing.
All those extra hormones not only encourage fetal development, but they also have an effect on your well-being. Some can actually improve your health (and maybe your looks!) during and after pregnancy. What's more, childbirth and breastfeeding confer a few healthful benefits of their own.
Despite what we've all come to expect, from fatigue to stretch marks and varicose veins, most women find pregnancy to be a positive experience. According to a survey by Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, PhD, a professor of child development at Columbia University Teachers College in New York City, the majority of women reported only a handful of negative symptoms during their pregnancy; nausea and fatigue early on and discomfort and difficulty sleeping toward the end. More often, women reported feeling very energized and positive during the second and third trimesters, reports Brooks-Gunn.
Of course, that might be easy to forget on those days when getting out of bed is an enormous effort. But rest assured, wonderful changes are taking place in your body. Happily, you'll experience some of the benefits for a long time to come.
For many women, sex improves during at least part of pregnancy. During the second trimester, there's increased blood flow to the pelvic area, notes Christiane Northrup, MD, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Vermont. The result is greater sensitivity during sex and a greater likelihood of orgasm. In fact, some women experience orgasm for the first time in their lives during mid pregnancy — and some will even experience multiple orgasms.
Not only will the sex be better, but you'll feel sexier too; pregnancy hormones as well as androgens (male hormones produced by both male and female fetuses) kick in, heating up the libido. Take advantage of this time to connect with your partner. During the first trimester, fatigue and nausea likely took a toll on your sex life. And later, as your due date nears, you may feel too bulky and uncomfortable for sex. Don't worry that you want too much or too little sex. Every woman's experience is different. The best way to make the most of your pregnancy is to enjoy feeling good for as long as you can. If you're not up for sex, create intimacy by asking your partner to brush your hair, massage your feet, or rub your back and shoulders. However often you indulge your desires, don't fret about sex hurting the fetus. As long as your pregnancy is uncomplicated, feel free to indulge.
Pregnancy causes many women to institute all kinds of positive health changes and drop bad habits. For instance, experts say pregnancy is one of the most effective inspirations for quitting smoking. It's also a great motivator for getting fresh air and exercise, notes David Acker, MD, associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. And research has shown that one group of women in particular, those with diabetes (Types I and II), make good use of pregnancy to learn how to better manage their disease. Often these new health habits become shifts to a healthier lifestyle.
Sooner or later after childbirth, your menstrual cycle will resume. But here's a welcome side effect: You may have fewer bothersome cramps. Some women even find that menstrual pain ceases altogether after pregnancy and childbirth. This pain reduction is a well-known phenomenon, but no one really knows for sure why it occurs. One possible theory is that childbirth eliminates some of the prostaglandin receptor sites in the uterus. Prostaglandins are hormones with several functions, one of which is to direct the uterus to contract during labor. They also play a role in menstrual pain. The upshot? Fewer pain-receptor sites, fewer cramps.
Recent studies report that pregnancy produces a protective effect against breast and ovarian cancers. The more pregnancies you go through — and the younger you start having babies — the greater the effect; some research has found that breastfeeding for more than three months can also lower the risk of certain cancers.
Right now, the pregnancy/breast-cancer-reduction relationship is based on theories, says Kevin Hughes, MD, director of the Breast Center at the Lahey Clinic in Burlington, Massachusetts. One hypothesis, based on the fact that ovulation ceases during pregnancy, suggests that women who ovulate less over a lifetime are less likely to develop breast or ovarian cancer. Another theory suggests that breast tissue that never goes through pregnancy and breastfeeding may also be more prone to breast cancer, even though the tissue is hormonally stimulated to prepare for future milk production during each menstrual cycle.
Pregnancy seems to enhance your sense of taste, most likely because your sense of smell also increases. Yes, that same sensitive nose that made morning sickness worse during early pregnancy can make food taste especially delicious later on. Some experts blame the "radar nose" on high levels of estrogen; others theorize that this strong sense of smell helps women instinctively avoid potentially dangerous substances like cigarette smoke or tainted food, which can be harmful to both mother and baby.
The ultimate do-it-yourself project, pregnancy can serve as a unique confidence builder. Some women find their body image actually improves with pregnancy, says Mae Shoemaker, past president of the International Childbirth Education Association. Women with low-risk pregnancies, she points out, realize that they're still capable of doing lots of activities, even with the extra stress on their body.
And for women who have suffered through infertility, pregnancy is a great relief. They get confirmation that their bodies can do this miraculous thing, notes Shoemaker.
Childbirth has been compared with marathon running, for good reason. Some studies suggest that women gain a newfound sense of their own strength after going through labor and delivery. At minimum, pregnancy and childbirth can change your perspective for the better. When you're living with the knowledge that your body is creating a new person and delivering him or her into the world, you're less likely — at least some of the time — to sweat the small stuff.
The information on this Web site is designed for educational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for informed medical advice or care. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat any health problems or illnesses without consulting your pediatrician or family doctor. Please consult a doctor with any questions or concerns you might have regarding your or your child's condition.
Content courtesy of American Baby
Can a pregnant woman become allergic to her baby's placenta? Find out and learn about pregnancy allergies at HowStuffWorks.