“How far along are you? Eight weeks?” a friend of mine asked. “Almost 10,” I said. She was surprised: “Wow, doesn’t time fly?” I muttered something appropriate in reply, but what I thought was more along the lines of “No, time doesn’t fly. It crawls like a turtle with hip dysplasia.” I was permanently tired, I was sick 24/7, and the magic end of the first trimester seemed ages away. How is it possible, I wondered, that a week can zoom by for one person, yet feel like a month for another?
Pregnancy, as most moms-to-be will admit, has powerful time-distorting qualities. In general, scientists agree that our inner clocks are highly unreliable. According to Robert Ornstein, PhD, psychologist, author and world-renowned expert on time perception, when we look back to judge how much time has passed, we tend to think hours or days “flew” when there was little change in our lives. If we can retrieve a lot of information from our memory, we remember a duration as long. That’s why when you drive for 10 miles on a familiar stretch of road the trip seems shorter than a ride of an equal distance taken through a new environment.
In one famous experiment, French explorer Michel Siffre spent two months in a dark cave with nothing to do and nothing to fill his memory. He emerged after 61 days convinced that he had been isolated for only 25. Pregnancy is a scenario opposite Siffre’s cave. When you learn you are expecting a baby, you are awash with newness: new emotions, new physical symptoms, new experiences. There is so much to store in your memory that weeks may feel like months.
Breaking your routines can cause time to drag too. In retrospect, routine activities seem short, acknowledge Dinah Avni-Babad and Illana Ritov, psychologists at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In their 2003 experiments published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, they show that time flies for people on holidays if they engage in routines, such as choosing the same table in a restaurant each night or playing the same sports every day. According to Avni-Babad,the slowing down of time experienced at the beginning of a pregnancy might be caused by a sudden change of habits. We no longer drink coffee; we alter our diets and exercise routines; we give up cigarettes, alcohol, our favorite sleep positions … the list goes on.
A watchful pregnancy
Fixating on the calendar can also make days seem never-ending. According to the attentional gate theory of time perception formed by Richard Block, PhD, of Montana State University and Dan Zakay, PhD, of Tel Aviv University, the more attention we pay to the passage of time, the slower it seems to move (which is why the proverbial watched pot never boils). “At the beginning of your pregnancy, you wait to feel the baby move, you wait for your first ultrasound, and for the acknowledgement of your pregnancy by the outside world,” says Christine McCourt, anthropologist at the City University London and author of Childbirth, Midwifery and Concepts of Time. “That’s also why organization of prenatal care, such as delaying the first OB/GYN visit until the 12th week, can cause time to drag,” she explains.
In the second trimester, Zakay explains, the flow of time appears rather normal because we stop counting weeks so obsessively. But toward the end of term, when we focus heavily on our due date, it slows down once again.
Stress and fear can also slow down the passage of time, explaining why witnesses of crimes tend to overestimate the duration of the event and arachnophobes feel as if a 45-second period spent watching a giant spider is closer to two minutes (this was proved back in 1984 by Reverend Dr. Fraser Watts of the University of Cambridge, by the way). The lesson to be learned: If you want the time to go faster, try to relax.
Even giving up coffee and alcohol can impact the way we perceive time—although, admittedly, rather minimally. Alcohol makes time fly: The more we drink, the quicker the minutes disappear. The clock spins the fastest just half an hour after we drain the glass. Authors of a 2011 study published in Acta Psychologica gave vodka shots to students and showed that while only 35 percent of those who received placebos experienced time as passing faster than usual, 60 percent of those who drank 0.6 grams of alcohol per kilogram of body mass (that’s 100 grams of vodka for a 140-pound person) thought that time sped.
The same is true with coffee. In his book Time: A User’s Guide, Stefan Klein writes that after downing 200 milligrams of caffeine, people think minutes pass up to 50 percent more swiftly than usual (so half an hour could feel like 15 minutes). For a caffeine junkie who’s given up her habit for her baby’s sake, this can mean quite a few dragged-out minutes daily.
Lost in the moment
“I thought it had only been two hours since I had been admitted to the hospital. I had no idea that it had been … almost 18 hours. When I looked at the baby’s bracelet the next morning, it said 9:10. At first, I thought I had delivered at 9:10 a.m. but when I saw 9:10 p.m., I called the nurse in. I said to her, ‘Is this an error?’” recalls a 21-year-old mother interviewed by Cheryl Beck, DNSc, CNM, FAAN researcher, author and professor at the University of Connecticut, for her article published in 1994 in the International Journal of Nursing Studies.
According to Beck, women often seem “disoriented in time” during labor. In the aforementioned study, Beck asked 60 women to estimate duration of a short interval and showed that although time generally dragged for them, it passed significantly faster in active labor than in the latent phase.
Beck notes that the acknowledgment of the progress women make while giving birth helps time pass more rapidly, and that arms of the clock appear to move faster at a birth center than at home. The reason? The number of distractions coupled with a greater sense of security. Rest assured, if you find yourself mixed-up in time during labor, you’re not going nuts. It’s just a normal part of the process.