Should you take a test? We speak to a family GP about tell-tale early signs of pregnancy.
Suspecting – or hoping – you could be pregnant? While a missed period followed by a pregnancy test is the only sure-fire way of finding out if you’re definitely expecting a baby, there are a few hormonal changes that might indicate early signs of pregnancy.
Pregnancy tests are most reliable from the first day of your missed period, although some tests can be used as early as five days before your period is due.
What are the early signs of pregnancy?
Even in the very early weeks of a pregnancy, your baby isn’t the only one growing and changing – you are too. ‘Every women experiences unique pregnancy symptoms, with some having very few and others getting the full house,’ says Dr Henderson.
Once you have confirmed you are pregnant by taking a pregnancy test – which is the only way to be certain – early pregnancy symptoms may come on more quickly or prominently than you expect. Below, our experts reveal the most common signs to look out for, and share tips for combatting the symptoms associated with them:
- Breast changes during pregnancy
Even during the first month of pregnancy, many women notice that their breasts start to grow larger, and feel tender, with the area around the nipples (the areolae) starting to darken. ‘This is due to a woman’s hormone levels rapidly changing after conception, causing the glands inside the breast to grow and prepare for milk production and breastfeeding after baby is born,’ says Dr Henderson.
- It can take several weeks for your body to adapt to these new hormone levels, but any discomfort should gradually settle as the pregnancy continues.
- ‘Expect to go through several bra sizes when pregnant and don’t skimp on maternity bras, as good support is essential for keeping you comfortable as your pregnancy develops,’ says Dr Henderson.
- Fatigue during pregnancy
Feeling very tired is a normal early sign of pregnancy, starting as soon as the first week of pregnancy, and this tiredness can be overwhelming. ‘It’s linked to hormonal changes, especially a rise in the hormone progesterone, although other factors such as low blood pressure and falling levels of sugar in the blood can also be a factor,’ says Dr Henderson.
- This exhaustion typically starts to ease away around the 12th to 14th week of pregnancy.
- ‘Get plenty of rest – including catnaps in the day if you are able to – and eat foods that are rich in protein and iron,’ says Dr Henderson.
- Bloating and gas in early pregnancy
Pregnant women may report feeling bloated very early in pregnancy, often around the time of their first missed period, due to rising progesterone levels. Progesterone ‘delays the time it takes for the stomach to empty after meals, and slows the overall passage of food through the intestines,’ explains Dr Lee. At the same time, there’s a disturbance in the natural production and distribution of gas within the gastrointestinal tract, she adds, which can result in burping and passing wind.
- Eat plenty of dietary fibreto avoid becoming constipated. ‘Fibre is found in whole grains, beans, lentils, oats, nuts, green vegetables, fruits, and berries,’ says Dr Lee. ‘If you can’t manage this, you can opt to take a fibre supplement.’
- Drink plenty of water, and make time for exercise – just 30 minutes of walking per day is enough to stimulate your metabolism, Dr Lee says.
- ‘Try and work out if sensitivity to any specific foods could be to blame, for example, broccoli, cabbage sprouts, onions, or wheat,’ she adds.
- Nausea during early pregnancy
Morning sickness is perhaps the most well-known early sign of pregnancy, but not every pregnant woman gets it. ‘Despite its name, it can happen at any time of day or night, usually starting three to four weeks after you have missed your period,’ says Dr Henderson.
- If you don’t develop morning sickness, don’t worry – you’re just lucky! ‘The exact cause for it is still unclear, but is likely to be linked to the very rapid rise in the hormone hCG,’ says Dr Henderson.
- Eat small meals often, and avoid eating at bedtime. Be sure to wear clothes that don’t constrict your waist, and try eating gingeror taking a ginger supplement.
- If your symptoms remain severe, your doctor may recommend a short course of anti-sickness medication.
- Food aversions or cravings in pregnancy
You may start to crave (or even go off) certain foods at this early stage. ‘Fortunately, for most women the symptoms lessen at about the 13th or 14th week of their pregnancy,’ says Dr Henderson.
- Cravings or aversions are only a problem if they replace healthy eating habits and prevent you from getting the nutrients you need. Nutrition is very important during pregnancy.
- Eat regular meals and snacks, choosing foods high in fibre to keep you satiated. Preparing healthy snacks in advance may help.
- Drink plenty of water, and make sure you get enough sleep.
- Temperature changes in pregnancy
By week six, your blood volume has increased to meet the demands of the growing pregnancy. ‘Blood flow has also increased, especially to the uterus and placenta,’ says Dr Lee. ‘This results in a small rise in core temperature from 37°C to 37.8°C. Women often notice they feel increasingly hot, with sweaty hands and feet, and they may feel a bit dizzy and faint.’
- Drink plenty of chilled water and avoid caffeine, which tends to slightly raise your core temperature, says Dr Lee.
- ‘Your body naturally produces heat after a meal,’ she adds. ‘However, more heat is produced when you eat large meals, so eat small meals at regular intervals.’
- Choosing food with a low glycaemic index (GI) may also help. ‘These are foods which release energy slowly, such as beans, peas, lentils and whole grains,’ Dr Lee says.
- Try swimming, which is a great form of exercise in pregnancy. You could also take lukewarm baths and showers.
- Increased sense of smell and taste
It’s thought that fluctuating hormones also affect the senses, including smell and taste. ‘If you are pregnant you may have a more sensitive sense of smell than usual, for example, the smell of food or cooking might make you feel nauseous,’ says Dr Henderson. Some women also experience a metallic taste in the mouth, medically known as dysgeusia,
- If your sense of smell has been affected, try to steer clear of strong smellssuch as perfume.
- Any changes in taste are only temporary and will clear up as you go through the pregnancy.
- Spotting and cramping during pregnancy
You may feel an odd, rather vague feeling of mild period-like cramping very early on after conception as the fertilised egg attaches itself to wall of the womb. ‘This is known as implantation bleeding that occurs anywhere from six to 12 days after the egg is fertilised,’ says Dr Henderson.
- Unlike a normal period, the bleeding and cramps are mild. To treat cramps, use paracetamol at the lowest effective dose for the shortest possible time.
- If you develop heavier bleeding early in pregnancy, seek advice from your doctor.
- Faster heartbeat in pregnancy
Your heart starts to beat faster in early pregnancy and continues to accelerate throughout. This is due to an increase in the amount of blood in your body, which is used to help your baby grow and develop. Your heart has to pump faster to move the extra blood around your body. ‘By the end of the second trimester, the average pulse rate has increased by 10 to 20 beats per minute,’ says Dr Lee.
- Eat a healthy diet, keep exercising regularly, and avoid caffeine.
- If you experience palpitations frequently, consult your doctor.
- A missed period and pregnancy
This is the most obvious early sign of pregnancy of all, and the one that prompts most women to get a pregnancy test. ‘If your period is late, there is the possibility you could be pregnant, so do a pregnancy test,’ says Dr Henderson. These are readily available both in-store or online.’
- Frequent urination during pregnancy
This often starts around the sixth week of pregnancy as a result of hormonal changes. They stimulate your kidneys to expand and produce more urine, which helps your body get rid of waste quicker. And of course, as your baby grows, the weight may press on your bladder.
- Make sure you have emptied your bladderbefore going out, and drink more fluids in the day than in the evening to reduce the chance of waking up in the night, suggests Dr Henderson.
- ‘If you feel discomfort when you wee, or see blood in your urine, then talk to your doctor as you may have an infectionand need treatment,’ he adds.
- High blood pressure during pregnancy
The hormonal changes that occur during pregnancy also affect your blood pressure – the pressure of circulating blood in your arteries – due to an increase in the amount of blood in your body. A meta-analysis of more than 32,000 pregnant women found that that systolic blood pressure (the top reading) starts to rise at 10 weeks of gestation, she says. Diastolic blood pressure, the lower reading, starts to rise much later, at 21 weeks gestation.
- Get your five-a-day. A research studyfound that women who followed a diet rich in fruit and vegetables, had a 14 per cent reduction in the risk of high blood pressure in pregnancy, and a 21 per cent reduction in pre-eclampsia.
- Keep your salt intake to a minimum.
- Constipation during pregnancy
Around half of all pregnant women complain of constipation, often very early on in their pregnancy. ‘This is due to higher levels of the hormone progesterone, which causes food to pass more slowly through your intestines,’ says Dr Henderson.
- Drink plenty of water and exercise as regularly as you can – even if it’s only walking.
- Eat plenty of high-fibre foodssuch as fruit, vegetables and bran cereals.
- Headaches and pregnancy
Many pregnant women report frequent mild headaches early in pregnancy. ‘These can be due to a number of factors including morning sickness, fatigue, hunger, hormonal changes, low blood pressure and even low mood or depression,’ says Dr Henderson.
- Try to eat regularly in small quantities, get as much rest and sleep as you are able to, and drink enough fluids to stop you becoming dehydrated, he suggests.
- To treat headache symptoms, use paracetamol at the lowest effective dose for the shortest possible time.
- Heartburn in pregnancy
Heartburn is common in early pregnancy. ‘Usually food is swallowed into the stomach, mixed with stomach acids, and passes out of the stomach into the intestines,’ says Dr Lee. ‘The sphincter at the lower end of the oesophagus prevents gastric contents from travelling up and out of the stomach. However, rising levels of progesterone cause the sphincter to relax, and it can no longer function so efficiently. As a result acid-reflux sometimes occurs, and this can cause unpleasant symptoms.’
- Stay upright when possible, don’t eat late at night, and lie on your left side to avoid heartburn. You could also try raising the part of the bed beneath your head and chest by 10 or 15cm, says Dr Lee.
- ‘Calcium and magnesium containing antacids are considered safe in pregnancy,’ she adds. ‘No studies have shown these to be harmful to the fetus. You can take them as and when needed. Bicarbonate and aluminium-containing antacids should be avoided.’
- Mood swings and pregnancy
Mood swings can be extremely common in the early stages of pregnancy. They are often short-lasting – you might find yourself feeling really happy, only to burst into tears within a few minutes. ‘Often occurring early on in pregnancy, these are related to the rapid hormone changes occurring in the body at this time and usually settle as the pregnancy progresses,’ says Dr Henderson.
- Taking good physical care of yourself. Gentle to moderate exercise can help to improve your mood. Adequate rest and quality sleep are also very important.
- Reduce other sources of stress as much as possible.
- Don’t bottle up your feelings. Make your partner aware and lean on them for support.
You might find yourself feeling really happy, only to burst into tears within a few minutes.
- Dizziness and fainting during pregnancy
Not all pregnant women notice this during their pregnancy, but this can happen from a very early stage. ‘Feeling faint or dizzy may be related to low blood pressure, the dilating of blood vessels that slowly occurs in pregnancy, or low levels of sugar in the blood,’ says Dr Henderson.
- ‘If you feel dizzy, sit down until it passes and try to remember not to stand up too quickly after you have been sitting or lying down’, he suggests.
- Eat healthy food frequently to avoid low blood sugar levels, and drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration.
- Limit long periods of standing, and when you are stood up, try to keep moving to boost your circulation.
- Acne during pregnancy
Acne vulgaris is a common skin disorder in women of reproductive age, says Dr Lee. ‘Although acne sometimes improves in early pregnancy, it tends to worsen as the pregnancy progresses, probably because levels of the male hormone testosterone also increase with advancing gestation,’ she explains.
- Eat a healthy balanced diet and drink lots of water. Avoid high sugar and processed foods.
- Try not to pick, squeeze or otherwise irritate spots. ‘Be kind to your skin, wash it gently, and pat it dry, don’t rub,’ says Dr Lee. Change pillowcases and towels regularly.
- Discuss skin medications with your doctor. Topical treatments such as benzoyl peroxide and azelaic acidcan be used, says Dr Lee. ‘However, topical and systemic retinoids must be avoided, as they can damage the fetus,’ she says. ‘Also, avoid preparations containing salicylic acid and vitamin A.’