Just to be clear, we think that pregnancy is a beautiful process.
A woman creates life with her body. That’s incredibly cool and important. Still, it’s also really, really weird. In order to provide a fetus with everything it needs to grow, the mother’s body goes through some bizarre changes. Unfortunately, many women (and most men) don’t learn about the strangest aspects of childbearing until they’re actually experiencing a pregnancy. For instance…
1. The mother’s uterus can grow to 500 times its original size.
No, there isn’t an extra zero (or two) on the end of that number.
Think about blowing up a balloon and that’s basically what your uterus does during pregnancy.
According to the American Pregnancy Association (APA), the uterus grows exponentially during pregnancy, starting at the size of an orange and growing to the size of a watermelon. “Think about blowing up a balloon and that’s basically what your uterus does during pregnancy,” the website casually states, as if that’s anything close to a comforting thought. Certified nurse midwife Gigi Moore, CNM, who cares for pregnant women with the St. Joseph Medical Group in Maryland, explains the phenomenon without resorting to such a colorful metaphor. “The uterus expands to accommodate stretching the abdominal muscles,” Moore tells HealthyWay. “The expanding uterus contributes to the low back pain that starts early on in pregnancy and can continue to the delivery.” That’s the bad news. The good news—if there is any good news—is that the uterus “deflates” back to its normal size within about six weeks after the pregnancy concludes.
2. That growth can sometimes have some odd effects on the surrounding tissues.
Okay, so while your uterus is expanding “like a balloon,” what about, like, the surrounding muscles? What about, you know, your skin?
My pregnant belly defied gravity, and as a result my abs split wide open.
Well, we’re all familiar with stretch marks. According to the APA, stretch marks occur when the body expands too quickly for the skin to adjust. Tissues within the skin tear, scar tissue forms, and we’re left with streaks along our abdomens. Pregnant women can limit the chance of stretch marks by keeping skin as hydrated and elastic as possible. The APA recommends eating foods rich in vitamins E, C, B2, and B3 to maintain strong production of collagen, which can keep your skin supple. You can also drink lots of water and use moisturizers on your belly frequently. So that’s the skin. Unfortunately, your abdominal muscles are also at risk. A little more than 30 percent of pregnant women showed a condition called diastasis recti abdominis—in which your abs actually split slightly apart, creating a persistent pooch—a year after giving birth. At six months postpartum, the prevalence rate was just over 45 percent. This is not a rare condition. Crystal Henry, writer and mom of two, could tell you all about it. “I have a short torso, so rather than growing up into my esophagus, my babies grew straight out,” Henry tells HealthyWay. “My pregnant belly defied gravity, and as a result my abs split wide open. I did find an exercise that helped repair the split just a bit. But I still have a decent gap between my ab muscles.” Like Henry suggests, there are exercises that can help recover from diastasis recti. And it’s not usually a serious medical condition, though it can lead to pain in the lower back and make it tougher to lift heavy objects. As with everything in pregnancy, if you’re concerned, talk to your physician to get help.
3. A woman’s bones can become much more brittle during pregnancy.
Notice that we said “can,” not “will.” Osteoporosis (literally “pores in the bones”) can become an issue during pregnancy if a woman doesn’t increase her calcium intake. The baby needs plenty of calcium to form a skeleton, and it’s greedy—it’ll suck up all of the calcium it needs from Mom. This can result in bone density loss, which can lead to serious health issues. There’s good news, though. The mother’s body prepares for this threat, and elevated levels of estrogen and progesterone help to protect bone density. There’s some evidence that women who undergo multiple pregnancies have stronger bones than women who’ve never been pregnant. That said, women should be sure to get enough calcium both during and immediately after a pregnancy. (Breastfeeding can also drain out some of that much-needed calcium, since milk is, you know, loaded with the stuff.)
4. Pregnancy might increase a woman’s risk of developing certain autoimmune disorders.
For decades, some scientists have hypothesized that mothers are more at risk for autoimmune disorders like lupus and multiple sclerosis. A 2011 study finally provided some evidence. Dutch researchers analyzed the records of more than 1 million women to try to find correlations. As NBC reported: “The researchers found that in the first year after conventional deliveries or cesarean sections, women had a 15 or 30 percent greater risk, respectively, of contracting such disorders.” Now, correlation doesn’t equal causation, but researchers have hypothesized that mothers’ bodies are “activated” to a state of high functionality during pregnancy. When the pregnancy is over, the immune system may turn on the body, possibly due to fetal cells that stick around after childbirth. The researchers now plan to study groups of women over longer spans of time to see if the body eventually corrects for this hyperactivity. As the research currently stands, however, having a baby seems to increase a woman’s risk.
4. A woman’s feet can grow during pregnancy, and in some cases, they don’t shrink after childbirth.
Yes, if you’ve ever felt self-conscious about the size of your feet, ladies, pregnancy isn’t going to do you any favors. You’re not going to move up to clown shoes, exactly, but you may have to throw out your old shoe collection. There are a few reasons for this, but mainly, your body needs to expand the pelvic joints in order to prepare for the birth of the child. When you’ve got wider hips, you need longer feet to stay balanced. Many new mothers gain an entire shoe size, and their feet don’t necessarily shrink when the pregnancy’s over. Of course, you can diminish this effect somewhat by stretching regularly, finding supportive shoes, and avoiding excessive weight gain, but absolutely everything in that previous sentence is way harder when you’re pregnant.
5. Some new mothers will lactate automatically when they hear a baby cry.
In fact, this strange phenomenon can start before the baby’s born, occasionally leading to embarrassing moments for the mother-to-be. But why does this happen? For starters, women’s brains react to crying babies in a very unusual way. The sound causes a release of oxytocin (more on this magical little chemical later), which prompts lactation. As for how a woman recognizes the cry of a baby, it’s partially cognitive recognition (meaning that she thinks about the sound) and part evolution. Babies usually cry in the 1,000–5,000 Hz range, and few adult voices come anywhere close to that range. It’s interesting to note that cat meows often hit the exact same frequencies, and some scientists believe that isn’t an accident. Cats might have learned to meow specifically to make demands of their human caretakers. If you’re pregnant, keep this in mind the next time you’re around a cat—especially if you find your body, ahem, responding in an unusual way.
6. Let’s talk about meconium.
Don’t do a Google image search for “meconium,” by the way. No, trust us; don’t even do a normal Google search. Unless you’re a parent, you won’t be prepared for what you see. Meconium, to put it bluntly, is a baby’s first poop. Unlike other poops, it’s not really made up of food, per se. It’s made up of epithelial cells, mucus, bile, water, and amniotic fluid (which is mostly pee, and we’ll explain that later in the list). It’s mostly sterile, as the baby hasn’t picked up many species of bacteria by this point, except for the bacteria he or she picked up during childbirth. Babies start producing meconium while still in the womb. Ordinarily they won’t expel it until after birth, but in some cases, it comes out early, leading to something called “terminal meconium.” That sounds like an awesome theme park ride, but it’s significantly less enchanting.
7. There’s only one scientifically proven, non-chemical method of bringing on labor.
Well, okay; technically, anything that brings on labor is stimulating a chemical reaction in the mother’s body. Pregnancy is, after all, largely a chemical process (until it becomes, ahem, mechanical). However, there is only one widely accepted and tested method that doesn’t require doctors to induce labor with administered drugs. That method? Nipple stimulation. The stimulation releases oxytocin, commonly known as a “happiness chemical.” Oxytocin can induce labor in many circumstances. In fact, doctors often use a synthetic drug called Pitocin when inducing, and Pitocin mimics the effect of oxytocin. There’s even some evidence that this natural inducement could reduce the need for cesarean births. We want to be careful to note that this isn’t an option for every pregnant woman. Certain medical conditions can make this type of artificial inducement dangerous, so if you’re considering it, contact your physician first.
8. The baby pees in the womb, then drinks the pee. Over and over again.
In fact, that adorable little child drinks about a liter of urine per day. That’s enough to put Bear Grylls to shame. Amniotic fluid is mostly pee, in fact. There’s rarely any poop, though, since the mother only sends nutrients on to the baby. That’s not to say that babies can’t taste; some research indicates that a mother’s food choices during pregnancy can influence the child’s taste palate later in life. Vanilla and garlic, for instance, pass into the amniotic fluid before the baby drinks them. Yes, the baby simply filters all of those flavors through pee. So just remember, folks: No matter how important you are, how widely respected you are, or how much you’ve done with your life, you spend several months of your existence drinking your own pee. Keep that in mind—and be sure to call your mom and thank her when you get a chance.