To the uninitiated—heck, even to those who have done it before—the actual labor and delivery part of pregnancy seems downright impossible. (I have to fit what through where?) But as unmanageable as it seems, your body is designed to do exactly that. In fact, it spends roughly 40 weeks preparing for labor, delivery and motherhood, and you’re just along for the ride. Here’s a rundown of some of the changes your body will undergo and the wonderful, surprising, and yes, seriously uncomfortable side effects of riding shotgun.
Observe outward appearances
Besides those thrilling two lines on the home pregnancy test, one of the first signs of pregnancy is breast tenderness and growth. Enlarged breasts are common in the first trimester due to increased levels of estrogen and progesterone, and their growth continues throughout pregnancy.
According to Katrina Anderson, certified nurse-midwife at Midwife Seattle, women often gain about an extra pound in their breasts alone during pregnancy—and that’s not all. Larger, darker nipples and areolas, more visible veins and leakage of the thick, yellowish substance known as colostrum are all to be expected as breasts prepare for milk production down the line.
As your uterus expands to accommodate its new houseguests—baby and placenta—your belly will follow suit, and experiencing aches and pains is normal. Supporting your growing belly and generous new cleavage can make for one seriously aching back, and it doesn’t stop there. “In preparation for labor and delivery, the ligaments of the pelvis loosen due to a hormone called relaxin, present at 10 times its normal level during pregnancy,” says Leah Najima, MD, FACOG, an OB/GYN at Sierra Women’s Health in Reno, Nevada.
The upshot? Low abdominal pain as those ligaments and supporting muscles stretch—and the possibility of bigger feet! “The most shocking physical change that I encountered during my first pregnancy was my feet,” remembers Aubrey Ellzey, pregnant mom of one in San Jose, California. “They grew a size, and I could no longer fit into most of my shoes.”
That ever-growing belly can also trigger the infamous belly button pop. “We were definitely surprised by how much my belly button could pop,” laughs Jennifer Brannen, mom of a new baby girl in Boulder City, Nevada. “We called it the eject button that didn’t work.” Samantha Weed, MD, of the Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology at the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle, explains: “As the uterus expands, it tends to push the intestines up and out to the sides. From the expansion and pressure, the abdominal wall muscles can start to separate in the midline, which can lead to the belly button ‘pop’ sometimes at the end of pregnancy.”
Don’t worry—however amusing (or alarming) you may find it, odds are good that as your belly shrinks, your outie will return to its former innie status.
Take a ride on the hormonal side
Mamas-to-be get a front row seat on the hormonal roller coaster thanks to sudden, dramatic increases in estrogen and progesterone with the added bonus of changes to the amount and function of many other hormones. Not only are these hormonal fluctuations critical to fetal development, they’re also the cause of everything from morning sickness and mood swings to fabulous hair and nails.
“One of the most positive changes was my hair,” says Ellzey. “It’s shiny and luscious—I love it!” During pregnancy, hormones can change the ratio of hair follicles that are actively growing and those ready to fall out, making for noticeable growth and thickening. Hair texture and even color variations aren’t uncommon either.
But all that growth isn’t necessarily limited to your mane. Many women notice sprouting hair on the face, arms, legs or back. Still, it’s not forever—the growth-loss ratio “shifts in the opposite direction to normalize after the birth,” explains Anderson. From the first few months to the end of the first year postpartum, some women report noticeable hair loss, she says.
All those raging hormones can also have an obvious affect on your nails. “My nails are stronger and break less frequently,” says Lauren Alkidas, pregnant mom of one in Ann Arbor, Michigan. But not all women are as lucky. For some, prenatal hormones result in nails that tend to split or break more easily. If that’s the case, keep them trimmed and skip the polish and remover (and their chemicals).
Turn up the volume
During pregnancy, your body is working serious overtime, and all of that effort means a sharp increase in blood volume—up to 40 to 45 percent. “This increase starts in the first trimester and continues steadily until delivery,” says Weed. To accommodate, your heart works more efficiently to pump more blood faster, and your heart rate increases too.
There’s more. “Blood vessels also tend to relax and dilate, mostly due to hormonal changes,” says Weed. “This is thought to be the cause of the ‘pregnancy glow’ from increased blood flow near the skin, but it can also cause troublesome varicose veins.” Hemorrhoids, characterized by bulging veins that actually poke out of the anus, can be part of that package too. More blood can even mean nosebleeds and nasal stuffiness as mucous membranes swell, clearly one of the more glamorous aspects of pregnancy.
Labor because you can
While most of these changes happen over the course of 40 weeks, the pace quickens dramatically as you near the finish line. “No one can say for sure when natural labor may start,” says Anderson, “but a woman may notice several changes as that day begins to draw near.” Some women report feeling as though the baby’s head is sinking lower into the pelvis, which can also further increase bathroom breaks.
Another sign is the ripening of the cervix. You may or may not notice, but in preparation for labor, your cervix is doing some pretty amazing stuff. “It’s softer, more pliable, a bit thinner and may even begin opening,” says Anderson. Chalk it up to prostaglandins, estrogen and relaxin again, but mostly to the increasing pressure of your baby’s little head. “For women who have had children before, their cervix may even be two to four centimeters open for the last couple weeks of pregnancy,” says Anderson.
While you may think otherwise, it’s typically the pressure caused by contractions —not your baby—that causes your water to break. In less than 15 percent of pregnancies, ruptured membranes signal the beginning of labor. It’s far more common for these membranes to spontaneously rupture when labor is already well underway.
Contractions are another sign that the party is really getting started, even if they don’t actually lead to labor. “Oxytocin is the hormone released from the brain that causes the uterus to contract,” explains Anderson. “Having bouts of contractions is a sign that your uterus is becoming more receptive to oxytocin.”
This rhythmic tightening and relaxing of the uterine muscle is your body’s way of moving your baby down the birth canal and out into the world. As you move through the stages of labor, your contractions will increase in strength, frequency and length until your cervix dilates to a full 10 centimeters.
Attend the after party
Immediately after delivery (and also during breastfeeding), your body will continue to release oxytocin in even larger amounts, triggering what’s known as afterbirth pains. These aching, cramp-like sensations, which can last for up to six weeks, are the post-partum contractions of the uterus as it shrinks and moves back to its prepregnancy size and location. Not the most comfortable feeling, maybe, but a good sign that your body is returning to its previous state.
Pregnancy is anything but a static condition, and of course, not every change will be welcome. But however endless it may feel, every pregnancy does eventually come to an end. Soon enough, you’ll be kissing all of these crazy changes goodbye and kissing your sweet new baby hello.