Pregnancy

Pregnancy is not an illness, but rather a normal physiological event that normally lasts between 37 and 42 weeks from the first day of your last period, but most people refer to pregnancy as lasting nine months.

If you're planning to try for a baby, the UK Department of Health now recommend that you take a 400mcg folic acid supplement prior to conceiving, and for the first 12 weeks of pregnancy to prevent neural tube defects, such as Spina bifida, in your baby.

Around 776,352 babies were born in the UK in 2014.

Causes

Pregnancy happens when a female egg is fertilised by a male sperm after sexual intercourse or via in-vitro fertilisation (IVF). One in six pregnancies in the UK are unplanned, with one in 60 women having an unplanned pregnancy per year.

Symptoms

Early symptoms of pregnancy include: a missed period; breast tenderness; tiredness/exhaustion; passing more urine; strange tastes, smells and cravings; and nausea and vomiting.

Pregnancy nausea is experienced by eight out of 10 pregnant women and the symptoms can strike at any time of day. Sickness usually eases off by 12 weeks, or at the latest by 16 to 20 weeks. Unfortunately, a small number of women experience a severe type of sickness, known as hyperemesis gravidarum (HG), that persists throughout the whole pregnancy.

One in four pregnancies ends in miscarriage and the risk is highest in the first trimester. Symptoms include ‘spotting’ (shedding small amounts of blood), bleeding and cramping pains.

Diagnosis

These days, most women buy over the counter pregnancy tests from pharmacies or supermarkets and can test their urine just a few days after a missed period. Newer, more sensitive tests, can detect pregnancy even earlier at just a few days after conception. Experts say a positive pregnancy test is almost certainly accurate but a negative test is less reliable.

Once you know you're pregnant, you should go and visit your GP and book in for antenatal care with a midwife. The first tests and scans will be carried out between eight and 14 weeks. The first NHS scan is the booking scan, and can be combined with a nuchal fold scan that screens for a condition called Down's syndrome.

Who gets pregnant?

Pretty much any fertile woman can get pregnant, but there's a trend in the UK to delay getting pregnant until parents are in their thirties. The average age of mums and dads in England and Wales has increased by almost four years over the past 40 years. At the birth of a child in 2015 fathers averaged 33.2 years of age and mothers 30.3.

Treatment

Following your booking scan, you will be asked to visit your midwife for regular antenatal check-ups to keep a close eye on both yours and your baby's growth and wellbeing. Advice will be given about healthy eating in pregnancy, and it’s be recommended that you avoid pâté, raw and undercooked eggs, and mould-ripened soft cheeses, which can cause problems for your baby. You'll also be advised to give up smoking and avoid alcohol during the first three months of pregnancy, and then only drink one or two units, no more than once or twice a week for the rest of your pregnancy.

Iron-deficiency anaemia is common in pregnancy because of the extra demands by your baby on your iron stores, so you'll need regular blood tests to check on your iron levels. If they drop too low, you may need to take iron supplements. You'll also be advised to take a 10mcg a day vitamin D supplement.

In total, you can expect around 10 antenatal appointments during your first pregnancy and seven in subsequent pregnancies. At each appointment you'll have your urine tested for protein, a sign of pre-eclampsia, a pregnancy high blood pressure condition.

Other routine tests include: blood pressure and weight checks, a measurement of your bump (called the height of the fundus) with a tape measure to check your baby’s growth, plus tests for gestational diabetes, a type of pregnancy diabetes that causes your baby to grow too big.

You'll be counselled about whether you want screening tests for Down's syndrome and you will be offered another ultrasound scan at around 20 weeks, called the anomaly scan, to check your baby's internal organs including their brain, heart and kidneys.

Your antenatal care will also include classes to prepare you for the birth and for looking after your baby in the first days. You'll also get a chance to choose where you want to give birth and look around your local hospital maternity ward or birthing unit.

Nothing beats a healthy, balanced diet to provide all the nutrients we need. But when this isn’t possible supplements can help. This article isn’t intended to replace medical advice. Please consult your healthcare professional before trying supplements or herbal medicines.

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