fbpx How Delicate Are You Really During Pregnancy?

How Delicate Are You Really During Pregnancy?

Despite popular belief, pregnant people aren't fragile—but certain precautions are wise.
Britany Robinson
Written by

Britany Robinson

Michelle Mak and her partner had been trying to conceive for several years before trying in vitro fertilization (IVF). The process was difficult, both physically and emotionally. When they finally found out they were pregnant, the couple was thrilled.

But their struggle with conception led Mak's family to adopt strong opinions about how she should proceed with her pregnancy. Namely, they wanted her to be extremely cautious and get lots of rest. "They believed I was too fragile for any physical activity," Mak said.

It's natural for loved ones and strangers to treat a pregnant woman as if she is extremely delicate. And sometimes that's really nice. A stranger giving up their seat on a crowded subway? Yes, please.

And yet, pregnant women shouldn't be made to feel constantly fearful for themselves and their babies. There are certain precautions that are wise during pregnancy—and Mak's family's expectations were rooted in good intentions. At the same time, moms-to-be are still the strong, resilient, capable humans they were before they were pregnant.

So, how delicate are you really during pregnancy? Let's take a look at the risks, precautions and the truth behind society's instinct to roll a pregnant woman in bubble wrap and send her to bed.

The first trimester fears

The news of pregnancy comes with all kinds of emotions. Perhaps you're thrilled, but also nervous about losing the pregnancy at that early stage. Fear of miscarriage can inspire extra caution, from both mothers and those around them.

That fear is valid—about 1 in 4 recognized pregnancies ends in miscarriage, and 80 percent of those occur in the first trimester. But for better or worse, there is very little you can do about that. About 80 percent of miscarriages are caused by chromosomal abnormalities, meaning they're entirely unrelated to the mother's health or behavior.

Kathy Fray, a midwife and maternity consultant, said she sees many women rushing to the emergency room every time they get a cramp or a spot of blood during their first trimester. This abundance of caution is common, but largely unnecessary.

And in most cases, Fray said, a trip to the ER might cause more harm than good. Mom "ends up sitting in an uncomfortable chair for hours, full of stressful anxiety, when it would be way better for her pregnancy to be lying in bed sleeping."

Sadly, if you are going to experience a miscarriage, there is nothing a doctor can do to prevent it. (It's important to note, however, if your miscarriage is resulting in excessive blood loss, you should definitely seek medical attention.)

So, while your instinct might be to rush to the hospital at every possible sign of trouble, your body is already on top of things. In the earliest stages of pregnancy, try to focus on rest and reducing stress.

Protecting the belly
Illustration by Josh Christensen
Illustration by Josh Christensen

In the second and third trimesters, your baby is growing and so is your bump. Suddenly your belly is protruding and you're trying to protect your baby from the many obstacles in the world, from a crowd of elbow-swinging commuters to the hard ground you might encounter should you trip and fall over the feet you're losing sight of.

Of course, your body was made for this. The fetus is growing in amniotic fluid, surrounded by the protection of an amniotic sac, which is surrounded by the muscles of your uterus and abdomen. Even though a kick from your baby might feel like they're just a thin layer of skin away, they're actually very well protected in the womb. You and your baby should be perfectly fine if you bump your belly against the countertop or get a shove from the paws of your excited dog.

That said, it is important to protect your belly from trauma, such as a hard fall or the type of physical force you'd run into during contact sports.

"The risk is that belly trauma could cause the placenta to start to detach from the wall of the uterus," explained Kate White, M.D., an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the Boston University School of Medicine.

White advises against all contact sports, including hockey, soccer and basketball. She also recommends avoiding individual activities where falling is common, such as downhill skiing and mountain biking.

Exercising safely

Speaking of sports, how safe is it to exercise during pregnancy?

Mak made it a priority to stay active—despite her family's fear she was too fragile for physical activity. On the contrary, Mak understood that staying fit would make her stronger and more resilient when it came time to give birth. She'd always enjoyed yoga, so once her doctor gave her the go-ahead, Mak enrolled in prenatal yoga classes.

"As my body was changing, yoga helped with flexibility and calmed my mind," Mak said. "I also felt a sense of community with other pregnant women in class."

Mak attended class regularly until she was 38 weeks pregnant. When it came time to give birth, she was grateful she went with her gut, rather than succumbing to her family's fears. "It gave me the stamina and strength to endure 36 hours of natural labor. I was able to control my breathing and moved into several positions I learned in class."

White said it's common for women to feel nervous about exercise, especially in the early stages of pregnancy. But actually, most doctors will recommend staying active and continuing to exercise as you were—unless you've been participating in a hockey league or other contact sports.

"It's also okay to start exercising in pregnancy," White added. So if you want to try a new form of exercise—assuming it's one with a low risk of injury—go for it.

Staying active has lots of benefits for pregnant women. It can improve constipation, bloating, swelling and backaches. "Plus, it helps you sleep better," White said.

In the later months of pregnancy, White confirmed Mak's experience: "Exercise can help you cope better with labor and possibly reduce your risk of needing a cesarean delivery." She recommends low contact activities, such as running, swimming and yoga. But also, consider your own comfort and fitness level. If you're someone who is prone to trips and falls while running, that might be an activity to avoid.

The most important thing to remember with exercise and physical activity is to listen to your body. "As certain activities become more difficult, dial back the intensity," White advised. "There are plenty of people who run and bike throughout their whole pregnancy—but if your activities cause you pain or discomfort, it's okay to back off a little."

Lifting and standing
Illustration by Josh Christensen
Illustration by Josh Christensen

Then there is the type of physical exertion we run into without going to a fitness class, like lifting heavy objects and standing for long periods of time.

The risks associated with heavy lifting are related to the changing center of gravity in later pregnancy. Your balance isn't quite what it used to be, and you're at a greater risk of dropping something or falling.

Also, pregnancy hormones cause ligaments and connective tissue to soften. Lifting heavy objects, therefore, comes with an increased risk of injury to the mom, though it is unlikely to have any impact on your pregnancy. The most common recommendation is to not lift anything more than 25 pounds during pregnancy.

Turns out, there's an excellent reason for people to give up their seats to pregnant women. Studies have shown that standing for five hours or more leads to an increased risk of premature labor—standing causes blood to pool in the lower extremities, away from the uterus, blood that's needed for delivering nutrients to the fetus.

It should be added that standing for five hours or more isn't great for anyone and we should all kick our feet up every few hours! But pregnant women definitely deserve the comfy chair.

What about sex?

Good news! Assuming your sexual preferences don't involve contact sports or heavy lifting, sex is perfectly safe throughout pregnancy.

"If your clinician hasn't said otherwise, you can have all the sex and orgasms you want," White said. A penis, finger or sex toy is not going to reach beyond your vagina, so your baby is perfectly safe during penetrative sex. Your sexual behaviors might change, however, as a result of your sexual appetite, which can go up or down during pregnancy, but this shouldn't be of concern.

The bottom line when it comes to sex: Unless your doctor says otherwise, do what feels good. (Which is also a good way to approach sex even when you're not pregnant!)

If there is anything about sex or any other physical activities that makes you nervous, talk to your doctor about your concerns. There is so much to consider and so much information to absorb during pregnancy, but your peace of mind comes first.