A GP explains the signs and symptoms of pregnancy to look out for, and how to confirm you are pregnant.
Whether you’re excited or terrified about the idea of being pregnant, it helps to be informed of the signs of pregnancy.
Dr Juliet McGrattan looks at how to confirm you are pregnant and what to do next.
Signs and symptoms of pregnancy
A late or missing period is the commonest scenario that alerts women to the possibility they may be pregnant.
Women who are tracking their menstrual cycle and fertility will quickly become aware their period is overdue. Others who don’t monitor their dates, have irregular cycles or aren’t trying to conceive, can just suddenly realise they haven’t had a period for a while.
Other symptoms that might indicate women are pregnant include:
- Light bleeding, also called ‘spotting’
- Breast tendernessor tingling in the nipples
- Needing to pass urine more frequently
- Mood swings
There may be none, any or all of these signs. Some women just ‘know’ they’re pregnant, they sense it, whereas for others it come as an unexpected shock. Second or subsequent pregnancies may present very differently to the first.
Some women just ‘know’ they’re pregnant, they sense it, whereas for others it come as an unexpected shock.
How to confirm if you’re pregnant
The easiest way to check for pregnancy is to do a urine pregnancy test.
These can be bought over the counter from pharmacies and supermarkets. They are simple to use and involve either popping the testing stick in your flow of urine as you wee, or collecting urine in a pot and dipping the stick into it. Always read and carefully follow the instructions that come with the testing kit.
Pregnancy tests are also offered at family planning clinics and some GP practices. You may find your doctor or nurse sends the urine away to the laboratory for testing so results can take a few days to receive. On the spot testing in practices is often reserved for patients where a pregnancy test result is needed urgently, for example, when there is a possibility of an ectopic pregnancy where the pregnancy develops outside of the womb.
Blood tests aren’t routinely used for pregnancy testing, only if there is a specific indication to check or monitor pregnancy, again such as in the case of ectopic pregnancy.
How early can you take a pregnancy test?
Pregnancy tests detect the presence of a hormone called human chorionic gonadotrophin (hCG). It’s made by cells which surround the developing embryo. These cells eventually become the placenta which nourishes and supports the growing baby.
It’s advisable to do a pregnancy test on the first urine of the day. This is when urine is at its most concentrated and therefore levels of hCG will be highest.
The usual advice is to wait a week after your period is due and then do a pregnancy test.
The usual advice is to wait a week after your period is due and then do a pregnancy test. However, hCG can be detectable around a week after you have ovulated, so you may be able to detect pregnancy a few days before your period is even due. Check the kit instructions to see when it can be used.
The sensitivity of home testing kits varies but most are a similar sensitivity to the tests done at your medical clinic.
Can you be pregnant and still test negative?
A positive test is unlikely to be wrong, but a negative test doesn’t completely rule out pregnancy. If you are still suspicious then:
- Wait four or five days and do another test.
- Avoid drinking large amounts of fluid before the test so your urine isn’t diluted.
- Do the test on an early morning urine.
If further tests are negative, your period still hasn’t arrived and you think you may be pregnant, then make an appointment with your GP.
How to calculate what date your baby will be born
A positive home pregnancy test doesn’t tell you how pregnant you are or when your baby is likely to be born. Regardless of when you had unprotected sex and think you conceived, the due date is calculated as 40 weeks from the first day of your last menstrual period (LMP).
You can simply count the 40 weeks on a calendar or you can use an online pregnancy calculator. These are particularly helpful if you have a longer or shorter menstrual cycle than the average 28 days as they will adjust the due date accordingly.
If you don’t know your LMP, for example if you have just come off the pill and haven’t yet got a regular cycle, then estimating your pregnancy stage and due date is difficult. A best guess will have to be made until an ultrasound scan can be done where the size of the foetus can be measured and an expected arrival date given.
What to do after a positive pregnancy test
Make an appointment with your doctor when you discover you are pregnant. They will be able to give you lots of advice and ensure that any current medical conditions you have are addressed and looked after during your pregnancy. They will arrange for you to see a midwife which usually happens before you are 10 weeks pregnant.
In the meantime, here are some steps to take once you have a positive pregnancy test:
- If you aren’t already taking folic acidsupplements, then buy some from the pharmacy. You need a 400 milligram tablet daily until you are least 12 weeks pregnant to support the healthy development of the baby’s spine and nervous system.
- Stop smoking. There is plenty of support available for women to quit during pregnancy, speak to your doctor or midwife.
- Stop drinking alcohol. The safe limit is not known and may vary between women so the current advice is not to drink alcohol at all. If you are a heavy drinker, then speak to your doctor for advice.
- Continue your regular medications. Don’t stop anything that has been prescribed for you without advice to do so from your doctor. If you are taking antidepressants, anti-epileptics (medications to prevent seizures) or blood thinning medication such as warfarin then speak to your doctor to ensure it is safe for you to continue them.
- Look at your lifestyle. Eating well and exercising regularly will help you and your baby keep healthy during pregnancy and labour. This is a great opportunity to develop good habits for life. If you haven’t exercised before, simply begin with brisk walking for a few minutes and gradually build up to half an hour five times a week.
What to do if you don’t want to be pregnant
A positive pregnancy test isn’t what all women want to see. Discovering an unplanned pregnancy can be very stressful. If you do not want to carry on with the pregnancy, then it’s important to act early. However, it is also crucial that you have given yourself enough time to come to terms with the result and decide what is right for you. Your decision may not be what you thought it would be when considering this situation previously. Some women who were adamant that they would want a medical abortion if they found themselves pregnant find they change their minds and vice versa. It’s important to talk to someone you trust. You can also use one of the many confidential help lines to chat over your feelings and options with an experienced counsellor. Make an appointment with your doctor to discuss and arrange the next steps.