The Side Effects of Pregnancy No One Talks About

By Published On: March 13th, 2024

On behalf of all birthing parents, I apologize for perpetuating the misconception that pregnancy is cute. Now that you’ve taken the bait and begun your 40-week journey, it’s time for me to let you in on all the behind-the-scenes nasties under one condition: Let’s normalize these lovely signs of pregnancy and make it a safe (albeit somewhat embarrassing) place for expectant parents to swap stories and enjoy some solidarity. After all, laughing through pregnancy makes for a more enjoyable experience, right?

Stretch Marks Aplenty

Maybe you’ve already begun slathering your belly in lotion in an attempt to ward them off, but what are stretch marks, and why do they attack? Tiffani Hamilton, MD, of Hamilton Dermatology in Alpharetta, Georgia, says, “Stretch marks are a form of scarring that occurs … when the skin rapidly stretches. It can no longer bounce back, and a small tear occurs.” Stretch marks are imminent any time you gain weight rapidly and stretch skin beyond its elastic ability.

The good and bad news is this: Your likelihood of developing stretch marks is mainly hereditary. Your skin’s elasticity is determined by genetics, so some people will stretch more comfortably, while others are prone to exhibit tiger stripes as they expand.

Another unfortunate truth: Pregnancy stretch marks aren’t limited to the belly. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), these marks can appear on the breasts, butt, thighs … anywhere you gain weight quickly. They’ll pop up suddenly as angry red-purple streaks and eventually fade to blend in better with your skin postpartum, but they won’t completely disappear. (Stretch marks are not to be confused with varicose veins, which are swollen, twisted veins that lie just under the skin and usually occur in the legs.)

You Snooze, You Snore

It’s no secret that sleep becomes elusive once baby appears on the scene, but catching Zs during pregnancy is no easy task, either. If you’ve been a back or belly sleeper, switching to a side-sleeping position can take some getting used to. Then there’s the growing belly affecting your sleep posture, causing back pain and achy hips that want to toss and turn. Hormonal changes and a compressed bladder can increase urination and have you visiting the john at least once a night. Bonus: Even if your bladder isn’t bursting, pelvic floor changes can cause incontinence, which will leave you in need of a bathroom more regularly.

However, none of these complaints is quite as awkward as the snoring that affects many parents-to-be. Shalini Paruthi, MD, medical co-director of the St. Luke’s Sleep Medicine and Research Center, says, “About 30% of pregnant people experience snoring due to hormonal changes, weight gain, and fluid retention, which can lead to swelling in the upper airway.” Meanwhile, quiet your midnight motor by elevating your head with a pillow and sleeping on your side (a must during pregnancy, anyway).

Even though snoring is considered normal, be sure to let your doctor know if you’ve been snoring or experiencing shortness of breath because it could be a sign of sleep apnea. “Sleep apnea can cause more problems during pregnancy,” cautions Dr. Paruthi. “The main warning signs for pregnant people include daytime sleepiness and morning headaches in addition to snoring, choking, or gasping during sleep.”

Sick Morning, Noon, and Night

While morning sickness may seem as run-of-the-mill for pregnancy as bloating, mood swings, and backaches, you may be surprised to find out its name is a bit misleading. “Morning sickness” is a cruel misnomer perpetuated by unknowing plebeians. The fact is, most pregnant people experience some degree of nausea and a super keen sense of smell while expecting, and it is definitely not confined to the morning hours. Mild to moderate to severe nausea and vomiting can happen on the daily—and nightly—at any time or all the time. Many birthing parents experience heartburn as well, which only makes eating that much more unappealing.

Although morning sickness typically subsides after the first trimester, don’t expect to wake up suddenly feeling fabulous in your fourth month. The nausea gradually disappears at different times for different people. For the unlucky minority, it will last through pregnancy.

The best way to calm your gut is to always keep something in it. Seize the opportunity to eat even a small amount when cravings strike. When food sounds abhorrent, snack on crackers or other mild munchies to keep the barf at bay. First thing in the morning, throughout the workday, and even before bed, keep snacking and sipping water. There are also several little remedies out there—wristbands, lollipops, ginger treats, and more—that might offer some abatement. Otherwise, you’re pretty much waiting out the rough patch until you feel back on your feet.

Note: If you’re so sick that you absolutely cannot keep anything down, you might be suffering from the pregnancy complication hyperemesis gravidarum, or extreme nausea and vomiting of pregnancy. Keep your health care provider abreast of your situation. They may offer medication and want to monitor your weight and water intake. (You might even need to go to the hospital for IV fluids if the situation gets desperate.)

Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall: What the Hell?

You may have heard that a bounty of beauty perks is on the way from the moment you see the positive pregnancy test. It’s true; some people glow with pregnancy, looking more gorgeous than ever before. There are, like, five of them. Everyone else gets oiliness, dryness, acne, increased sensitivity, and dark splotches.

While most acne medications (creams, pads, pills) are off the table until after your due date, there are pregnancy-specific skincare lines that work well and won’t harm baby.

For dryness and sensitivity, moisturize often with innocuous products, and be übercautious in the sun. Lip balm with SPF helps preserve the kisser, too.

The dark splotches marring the faces of many expectant moms are melasma, or the “mask of pregnancy.” Dr. Hamilton says genetic predisposition, pregnancy hormones (estrogen and progesterone), and UV exposure are to blame for this patchy pigmentation. Your best defense is excellent sun protection. Dr. Hamilton recommends selecting a sunscreen that includes zinc oxide. “After pregnancy,” says Dr. Hamilton, “lightening creams, chemical peels, and laser treatments can be added to the religious application of sun protection” to reduce the appearance of melasma.

Hair goes wonky, too—many pregnant people sport fuller, healthier hair as an early sign of pregnancy—but others notice random changes they didn’t expect. I, for one, watched my blond hair turn brassy and all the purple shampoo in the world couldn’t get my ideal color back. A friend of mine with tight spiral curls had her locks go limp for the first time. It all has to do with hormones. If you’ve experienced tone or texture changes, make peace with new styles for now, and check back to see how your hair ends up after the postpartum period. Your coif may return to normal, or you might be looking at a new’ do for good.

Roller Coaster of Desire

Your libido is likely to ebb and rise and ebb again throughout pregnancy. In the first trimester, nausea and exhaustion could have you preoccupied, but by the second trimester, some expecting parents enjoy a renewed roar of desire as energy picks up, nausea decreases, and hormones surge. Sex during the second trimester can mean mega orgasms because of increased blood flow to the region, but you can tell your partner it’s all due to skill.

Later in the third trimester, you’ll have a big belly to contend with, so sexual positioning could take some creativity. You’re likely to have a drop in desire as discomfort mounts and sleep becomes an elusive—but ever-beckoning—prize. Also, there’s the common side effect of leakage. As disturbing as it might seem, your partner’s touch can elicit leaky breasts late in pregnancy. Laugh it off together; sex is an adventure anytime, but certainly more so when you’re expecting.