When a pregnant patient comes to Dr. Aparna Sridhar's office for the first prenatal visit, she usually spends a good chunk of time "degoogling" with the patient -- that is, setting the record straight about pregnancy information they might have read online. Sridhar, a gynecologist and clinical professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, cautions against comparing your pregnancy to those you read about online (or hear detailed stories about from well-meaning others). In fact, the way each pregnancy behaves differently from the next one is one of the things she wants patients to better understand.
"Every pregnancy is very unique," Sridhar says. "Even in someone who's been pregnant multiple times."
Because each pregnancy is so different, and the internet offers a space as wide as the ocean to drown in advice, hints and "tricks," it's all the more important to approach your journey through pregnancy and childbirth with an open mind and realistic expectations. It's also important to shake the idea that just because you're pregnant, every symptom or ailment you experience is par for the course.
Dr. Gloria Bachmann, the director of the Women's Health Institute at Rutgers University, says that reaching out for help and answers during pregnancy is one of the most important things you can do. Because despite its personal and individual nature, pregnancy isn't something you have to go through alone.
"Pregnancy is a community event," Bachmann says. "It's not just an individual. Sometimes it's not easy to get to the best, healthiest, you."
Whether you're pregnant, planning to become pregnant or just want to be informed for a pregnant friend, here's what you should know about one of life's most transformational times.
If you search "pregnancy isn't a disease" on Google, the top three headlines that pop up are, "Actually, we should think of pregnancy as a disease," "Pregnancy is not a disease," and, "Bringing up baby: Is pregnancy a disease?" Needless to say, the way we interpret pregnancy depends on our culture, and perhaps our own personal algorithms.
"Pregnancy is not a disease. It's a physiological change in which women are hosting a new life in their body," Sridhar says. "You're not sick, you're just pregnant."
Because pregnancy isn't a disease, it shouldn't cause disease-like symptoms. It's important to know the line between the discomforts pregnancy can bring, including nausea and morning sickness, and actual causes for concern, according to Sridhar. If your nausea and vomiting is getting to the point where you can't function at all, it could signal hyperemesis gravidarum, which can require treatment.
Bachmann says that her first "rule of thumb" is that there's no concern too little to ask about during pregnancy. Even a headache or stomach ache could signal a condition that needs to be checked out, Bachmann says, and just "being pregnant" isn't an excuse to hold back on reaching out to your health care provider.
"You can't use 'well, I'm pregnant,'" Bachmann says. "We really have to stress that you have to ask questions."
Make an appointment as soon as you suspect you're pregnant
There's no reason to wait for two missed periods, or hold off for a certain length of time after you either suspect you're pregnant or confirm it with a home pregnancy test, Bachmann says.
"Come in as soon as you think you're pregnant," Bachmann says, adding that one of the main reasons is ruling out ectopic pregnancy. Ectopic pregnancy happens when the embryo attaches outside of the uterus, usually to a fallopian tube. According to Planned Parenthood, it happens in about two out of 100 pregnancies. An ectopic pregnancy cannot result in a full-term pregnancy or birth, because no structure outside of the uterus can support a pregnancy. It can also be a life-threatening situation for the pregnant person if not treated early, per the Mayo Clinic, because the growing embryo can rupture the fallopian tube and lead to internal bleeding.
Even in less concerning circumstances, it's important to get seen when you suspect pregnancy so you can get the care you need. Bachmann says that for many people who might miss a period, following up on it with a doctor might merely be added to the long list of other things we have going on in our lives. But it should be a priority.
"They miss their period, and that goes on the to-do list," Bachmann says. But a potential pregnancy should be your priority. "Of the 25 things we have to do today, that becomes No. 1."
Pregnancy is (for the most part) out of your control
We've written lists of foods to avoid during pregnancy, exercises to do while expecting and other lifestyle changes you can make to ensure your baby has the healthiest entrance into the world as possible. And while some decisions do factor into the outcome of a pregnancy, much of how a pregnancy progresses is out of the pregnant person's control, Sridhar says.
"Pregnancy is on autopilot," she says. "We don't have much control over the course of the pregnancy." Sridhar added that her job as a health care provider who treats pregnant people is to monitor the pregnancy's growth and keep the parent and fetus as safe as possible. This natural course a pregnancy takes, away from the supervision or control of the person carrying the pregnancy, can also sometimes end in pregnancy loss -- perhaps more often than you realize.
Sridhar says about 10% of people who have a positive pregnancy test will experience a miscarriage or pregnancy loss, but the number is likely higher when you consider people who hadn't yet confirmed their pregnancies. Importantly, doing things such as continuing to take birth control not knowing you were pregnant, having sex, exercising and eating certain foods do not cause a miscarriage, and you shouldn't blame yourself if it happens.
Just because you read it, doesn't make it true
"There are a lot of cultural 'dos' and 'don'ts' in pregnancy," Sridhar says. Most of us have heard at least one wives' tales about how to induce labor, but the fact that there are so many ideas and theories floating around out there might be a testament to the enigma of childbirth and what induces it -- or what Sridhar calls "nature's best-kept secret."
In terms of comparing your pregnancy to another person's and listening to advice on what's best for you, don't get caught up in what you "should" or "shouldn't do." For example, someone might have gone into labor naturally near their due date so they believe that's the only right way to have a baby. That doesn't mean that inducing labor for you isn't the healthiest option for you and your pregnancy. Always check with your doctor.
"Everything has a risk, benefit and an alternative," Sridhar says.
Have realistic expectations after birth
People can have vastly different experiences when trying breastfeeding for the first time, Sridhar says, and if it doesn't work, it can make people feel inadequate. So while breastfeeding might come surprisingly easy to one person, another could have extreme difficulties. It's important to know the "wide range" of experiences ahead of time, according to Sridhar.
It's also important to understand the real risk of postpartum blues or depression following birth.
"Postpartum blues and postpartum depression are very real," Sridhar says. "It's a very unique time after delivery," she adds, not just for the pregnant person, but for all care-givers.
After-birth care is just as important as pregnancy care
In addition to breastfeeding and managing the roller coaster of emotions that follow birth, monitoring yourself for physical complications is important, Bachmann says. Blood pressure concerns, retained placenta and too much bleeding are all things to watch for, she says.
Some people may mistakenly think that once their baby is born and they're no longer pregnant, they can focus all of their attention on the child and put their own care on the back burner.
"That's not absolutely true," Bachmann says. "You have to be just as vigilant with your own health," whether it be physical, mental or social health (making sure you have a support system).
If you're struggling in pregnancy making the health changes you want to make, or need help following birth, Bachmann says there's no better time than pregnancy to make an assessment of your own life, health and needs.
"If you need help, don't think you have to do all of this yourself," she says.
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.