I think it’s safe to say most people are aware that maintaining a healthy lifestyle during pregnancy is beneficial. Not only does it positively affect your own health and wellbeing, but it can reduce the risk of pregnancy complications and conditions, and can support the health of your baby in the long-run.
After getting pregnant, it’s likely you’ll receive a huge amount of advice and information relating to the multitude of different healthy changes you’re recommended to make. It’s not only ensuring your diet is healthy, but avoiding certain foods, limiting caffeine, maintaining an appropriate level of activity, taking supplements, cutting out alcohol, stopping smoking, reducing stress, changing the way you sleep…. the list is seemingly endless.
When we plan to make changes to our lifestyle normally, we often focus on changing just one or two behaviours at a time. However, during pregnancy it can feel like all of these changes need to be made simultaneously and with immediate effect, which can feel overwhelming. Of course, it would be great if you were able to implement all these changes right away, but the reality of the situation is quite different and in actual fact, the timing of when you try to make these changes can have an important influence on how successful you are in maintaining them. In this article, I’m going to explain why this is the case.
The reality of the first trimester
At least 70% of women experience sickness and nausea during the first trimester of their pregnancy and let’s face it, if you’re feeling unwell the last thing you’re going to be thinking about is steaming some vegetables or getting yourself to the gym. In fact, for lots of women, the mere thought of food is enough to make them nauseous during this trimester, so tend to only eat whatever they’re able to stomach. As such, these first 12 weeks are often not an optimal time to start making healthy changes. If you’re part of that 30% of women who manage to avoid morning sickness and feel motivated to be active or change up your diet, then embrace that! If you fall into the other camp however, it’s probably better to listen to your body and try to get through this period as best you can, even if that does mean existing on a diet of dried toast and chicken nuggets!
The magic of mid-pregnancy
So, if the first trimester isn’t an ideal time for making lifestyle changes, then when is? It’s actually mid-pregnancy. One of the studies I conducted as part of my PhD research showed that many women find it easier to make healthy changes after the 12-week point. By mid-pregnancy, common physical symptoms (i.e., sickness and nausea) tend to reduce and women frequently report feeling more like themselves again (although sadly this isn’t everyone’s experience). This means they’re often in a better headspace to think about making some of the recommended changes and are physically more able to do so.
There’s also another reason why this stage of pregnancy lends itself to making healthy changes, and that’s because by this point, women often feel more connected with their baby and the idea of being pregnant. By mid-pregnancy, it’s likely you’ll have had your first ultrasound scan and might even have started to notice your baby moving around inside you. These events can really solidify the pregnancy experience, which for some women, can create additional motivation to make healthy changes for the benefit of their baby.
Don't leave it too late
If you’re feeling well in mid-pregnancy, seize the opportunity to make some positive changes while you can. Later in pregnancy, women often start feeling extremely fatigued, which can make it more difficult to make changes. As your bump grows, you’ll also start to slow down and might even begin feeling a bit fed up, which isn’t great for motivation! If you’ve managed to make some healthy changes earlier on in your pregnancy, it’ll be easier to carry these through into the later months, rather than trying to start anything new that late on.
It's also worth mentioning that sometimes women plan to wait until after their baby is born to improve their lifestyle, and whilst this is understandable, it’s not always the best approach. As I’ve already mentioned, there are lots of health benefits for both you and your baby to adopting, or maintaining, a healthy lifestyle throughout your pregnancy. It’s also a lot harder to make changes once your baby is born, as you’ll likely be sleep deprived and limited on time! It’s unlikely you’ll feel motivated to eat healthily or exercise if these aren’t already established habits and you may find it challenging to find sufficient motivation. So, if you’re mentally and physically able to make these changes during pregnancy instead, this is a great way of supporting that future you.
With all this said, it’s important to highlight that not everyone’s symptoms reduce after the first trimester. Whilst it is often the case, unfortunately some women experience unpleasant and even debilitating symptoms throughout the entirety of their pregnancy. If you’re someone who can relate, my advice is this; be kind to yourself. Whilst we know it’s beneficial to adopt a healthy lifestyle during this period, don’t put any undue pressure on yourself if your body is not playing ball. This experience is completely out of your control, so accepting the situation for what it is and looking after yourself throughout those nine months is the best thing you can do for both you and your baby.
If you’d like to read the full research paper this article is based on, you can find it at: https://bmcpregnancychildbirth.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12884-022-05135-7