Your pregnancy timeline
If you’ve just found out you’re pregnant, congratulations. For the next nine months there will be lots to experience and learn, including how your baby is developing. So here’s a very quick guide to what happens when, based on the number of weeks of your pregnancy.
Your egg is fertilised and, during the third week after the first day of your last period, it moves to your uterus via one of your fallopian tubes. Once it reaches your uterus, the egg becomes an embryo. This grows in the lining of your uterus, and by week seven it will be about 10mm long. By week eight, your embryo is called a foetus.
Your foetus starts to develop even more, with a face slowly forming and a heart fully formed at week 10. By 12 weeks, the foetus is fully formed with all organs in place. By 12 weeks you should also have seen your GP or midwife, and you should have your first scan around this time too.
Your baby continues to grow and you may feel them moving around or responding to noise. By 21 weeks they should weigh around 250g, and by 24 weeks they stand a chance of survival if they are born premature. Around this time you may also notice stretch marks appearing on your stomach, breasts and thighs.
Your baby may move around more, and by 28 weeks they will be perfectly formed and weighing around 1kg. By week 32, they may also be in the right position for being born, that is lying with their head pointing down. With all the extra weight you’re carrying, you may feel breathless and find it hard to sleep properly.
At week 33, your baby will have a fully developed brain and nervous system, and at week 36 their lungs will be ready to start breathing. You may start noticing sensations called Braxton Hicks contractions around this time too – these are caused by a tightening of your uterus and are completely normal. By 37 weeks you will have had a full-term pregnancy, and your baby will be born soon (according to the NHS, most women go into labour between 38 and 42 weeks (i)).
Pregnancy symptoms to watch out for
Serious health conditions that happen when you’re pregnant aren’t common. But how concerned should you be about those little aches and pains that you otherwise might ignore? Here are some of the common pregnancy symptoms, and when you should take them seriously.
Because of the extra hormones in your body, headaches and migraine can be more common during pregnancy. According to the NHS, paracetamol is usually safe to take when you’re pregnant – though you should get advice from your midwife or GP first (ii). However, if you have a headache that isn’t relieved when you take paracetamol, it could be a sign of pre-eclampsia, a condition that affects some pregnant women, the early signs of which include having high blood pressure. So if paracetamol has no effect on your headache, see your GP or midwife as soon as possible. Discover more about headache types and treatments in our helpful article.
A little bit of spotting early on in your pregnancy isn’t usually anything to worry about. But more substantial blood loss combined with abdominal pain could be a sign of a miscarriage or a condition called placenta previa in late pregnancy. If the bleeding is severe, call an ambulance. If it’s just a spot or two, call your doctor or midwife to put your mind at rest.
Aches and pains in the abdomen during early pregnancy may be caused by stretched ligaments. But if the pain is more severe and persistent, and just on one side, you could have an ovarian cyst – which, thankfully, is rarely serious (ovarian cysts are usually treated with paracetamol and are only more serious if they twist or rupture). Pain in your lower right abdomen, meanwhile, could be a sign of appendicitis, and severe period-like pain with blood loss could signify an ectopic pregnancy. Either way, you should go straight to hospital.
Blood pressure that’s a bit on the low side can be common during pregnancy, and you may find you feel a bit faint or see spots or flashes before your eyes if you stand up suddenly. But if you experience blurred vision without standing up suddenly, it could be another sign of pre-eclampsia. Look out for other symptoms such as swelling and dull headaches, and if you experience these along with persistent blurred vision, see your GP or visit your nearest hospital.
Frequent trips to the toilet
It’s normal to need to urinate more often during pregnancy. But if you also feel thirsty all of the time, it could be a sign of gestational diabetes. This is usually picked up during a routine urine or blood test, but if it isn’t, it could create problems during childbirth and make you more likely to develop type 2 diabetes later in life. Look out for these warning signs and let your GP or midwife know, as the sooner gestational diabetes is managed, the better.
Eating and exercising during pregnancy
While you’re pregnant, it’s even more important than usual to have a healthy balanced diet, for both you and your baby. So aim to eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables every day, as not only will this provide you with good nutrition but it can also help to prevent constipation, which is common during pregnancy.
Anaemia is another usual pregnancy problem, so include plenty of green leafy vegetables in your diet, such as spinach and broccoli, to give yourself an iron boost. Be careful to wash any fresh produce thoroughly, as any traces of soil can contain a parasite that’s harmful to unborn babies.
As well as fruit and veg, aim to have some starchy carbohydrate food with each meal – such as pasta, rice, potatoes and cereals – as they can help keep your energy levels up as well as provide important vitamins and fibre. Choose wholegrain varieties where possible, and try to eat your potatoes with the skins on. You’ll also need protein every day, such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs, nuts and beans, including a mid-morning and mid-afternoon protein snack to help keep your blood sugar level stable. Make sure eggs, meat and poultry are thoroughly cooked, and avoid liver and all types of paté and cooked deli meats such as pepperoni, salami and Parma ham. Dairy foods are beneficial during pregnancy as they contain calcium for your growing baby. However, avoid soft cheeses that come with a white rind, such as some goats’ cheeses, brie and camembert, and soft blue cheeses such as Roquefort and Gorgonzola. Other soft cheeses such as mozzarella, ricotta and cottage cheese are safe to eat as long as they have been made from pasteurised milk.
Some women decide to stop exercising when they find out they’re pregnant, but it’s a good idea to stay active – though stick to simple activities such as walking and swimming until you’ve had your first anti-natal check-up. Many mums-to-be also like to practise pregnancy yoga, which can be helpful for childbirth because it teaches you how to breathe deeply.
However, try to be more respectful of your body while you’re pregnant, and avoid pushing yourself too much. So continue to exercise, but be gentle with yourself.
Also avoid exercises that are performed while you’re lying on your back, such as sit-ups. If you want to try to keep your tummy muscles toned, this exercise works your core muscles effectively:
Sit on an exercise or fitness ball while making sure the ball is pressing up against a wall for stability.
Keeping your back straight, knees bent and feet about 10 or 12 inches apart, try lifting one foot a few inches off the floor.
Hold for a few seconds, put your foot down, then repeat with the other foot.
The lowdown on morning sickness
Nausea and vomiting are common during early pregnancy, with around eight out of 10 pregnant women feeling sick (nausea) and being sick (vomiting) or both (iii).
But while these may be perfectly normal side-effects of being pregnant, they can be difficult to cope with at times. The good news, however, is that morning sickness is perfectly healthy – indeed, experts believe it indicates everything is going well (iv).
Many experts believe that the hormones released by the placenta during pregnancy trigger morning sickness, particularly one called human chorionic gonadotrophin (HCG). However, this is just a theory.
Luckily, there are ways of keeping morning sickness at bay:
Eat little and often
It may be the last thing you want to do, but having something to eat can help. Aim for small, more frequent amounts of food than having three big meals a day, and try to eat something first thing in the morning to stave off feelings of sickness. Avoiding food altogether may make you feel worse, as your blood sugar levels will drop.
Avoid strong smells
The most common smells that trigger nausea during pregnancy include coffee, tea, fatty foods, cigarette smoke and perfume, so try to avoid these. On the other hand, some smells may make you feel less nauseated, including fresh grapefruit and lemon.
Have a ginger biscuit
Many mums-to-be find ginger helps with nausea, so try eating a ginger biscuit or two, or make yourself some fresh ginger tea. Studies also show taking ginger capsules may help with nausea and vomiting in pregnancy (vi), however, be aware that some products are too strong so check the packaging.
Drink plenty of water
Make sure you’re getting plenty of fluids as this may help to prevent vomiting. Sip water throughout the day, rather than gulping down a whole glass at a time.
Try an acupressure band
Some pregnant women say acupressure wrist bands – like the type used to reduce travel sickness – help with nausea too. Indeed, there is some evidence that acupuncture may be an effective treatment for women who experience morning sickness (vii).
Extreme morning sickness
Meanwhile one per cent of women with pregnancy sickness experiences an extreme form of the condition called hyperemesis gravidarum (viii). This can cause dehydration, the signs of which include thirst, tiredness, dry lips and mouth, and dark-coloured urine. Hyperemesis often begins around week six and continues until week 20. Some women, however, suffer from this severe form of morning sickness throughout their entire pregnancy. There’s lots more information on hyperemesis gravidarum at the Pregnancy Sickness Support website.
Natural pregnancy support
Even before you become pregnant you should be taking a folic acid supplement every day. Strong evidence suggests taking folic acid (folate) during pregnancy reduces the risk of birth defects called neural tube defects by up to 80 percent (ix). Neural tube defects include spina bifida, a condition where an embryo’s spine doesn’t develop properly; anencephaly, which is when a baby is born without parts of the brain and skull; and encephalocele, where a membrane or sac containing part of the brain pushes through a hole in the skull.
Experts believe a lack of folic acid during pregnancy may also increase the risk of a baby having a low birth weight (x). Having low folic acid levels could also increase the risk of placental abruption, which is where the placenta starts to come away from the wall of the uterus, causing abdominal pain and vaginal bleeding.
Research carried out at the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute in Sydney, Australia, suggests taking vitamin B3 supplements could become standard advice alongside taking a folic acid supplement every day, as it may reduce the number of miscarriages and certain birth defects (xi).
According to the researchers behind the study, vitamin B3 may help the body produce a substance called nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD), which they have linked to healthy foetal development. A lack of NAD may prevent a baby’s organs from developing normally in the womb, the researchers claim. Vitamin B3 is found naturally in meats and green vegetables, as well as in supplement form.
Meanwhile, a 2011 study claims taking folic acid supplements during early pregnancy may reduce your child’s chances of having severe language delay problems at the age of three (xii).
In the UK, government health experts recommend women who are trying to get pregnant to take a 400 microgram folic acid supplement every day until they reach their 12th week of pregnancy (xiii). You should also try to eat foods that contain folic acid, including green leafy vegetables, fortified breakfast cereals and margarine or other fat spreads that have folic acid added to them.
The other supplement recommended to pregnant and breastfeeding women is vitamin D. According to the World Health Organization, vitamin D deficiency is thought to be common among pregnant women, particularly during the winter months (xiv). Having low vitamin D levels, WHO experts claim, has been found to be associated with an increased risk of pre-eclampsia, gestational diabetes, premature birth and other tissue-specific conditions.
The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists claims there’s evidence that vitamin D deficiency has been associated with a four-times-higher risk of having a caesarean birth in first pregnancies, and may also be associated with bacterial vaginosis in pregnant women (xv).
RCOG experts suggest vitamin D deficiency in pregnant women is associated with impaired growth and bone development in the foetus, and may also increase the risk of osteoporosis in later life. Other health problems that may arise in a child whose mother was deficient in vitamin D during pregnancy include asthma, wheeze and respiratory infections.
You can get small amounts of vitamin D in foods such as oily fish, eggs and red meat, but sunlight is the main source (your body makes vitamin D when your skin is exposed to summer sunlight). If you don’t get much sun exposure NHS experts admit it may be difficult to get enough vitamin D from foods alone (xvi), which is why health experts suggest pregnant and breastfeeding should consider taking a daily supplement containing 10mcg vitamin D.
A convenient way to get the folic acid and vitamin D you need is to take a multi-vitamin and mineral supplement (make sure the supplement you choose has the right level of both nutrients). But avoid tablets that contain vitamin A, as it’s been linked with an increased risk of birth defects.
You may also want to make sure your multivitamin and mineral supplement contains magnesium, which may help reduce muscle tension as well as help you get a better night’s sleep.
If you don’t eat oily fish very often, a fish oil supplement is also a good idea when you’re pregnant. These contain the omega-3 fatty acids that help with the development of your baby’s brain and eyes. However, you should make sure any fish oil supplement you take is suitable for pregnant women – cod liver oil, for instance, contains vitamin A, which can harm your unborn baby.
Meanwhile if you’re a vegetarian or vegan you can still benefit from an omega-3 supplement, thanks to the availability of products that contain the natural triglyceride (TG) form of omega-3. This is sourced from plant organisms called microalgae rather than fish.
If, on the other hand, you like eating oily fish, limit your intake to one or two portions a week, as oily fish – but not refined and purified fish oil supplements – contain environmental pollutants that may harm your baby or interfere with their development.
As many mothers know, hormone changes that take place in your body during pregnancy can lead to constipation. But there are some things you can do to help prevent it, including eating a high-fibre diet and drinking lots of water. You may also want to take a gentle soluble fibre supplement that’s suitable to take during pregnancy. For instance, carbohydrates called fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS) are a source of soluble fibre that can help by allowing friendly bacteria to flourish in your digestive system.
While you’re pregnant – and indeed during the few months before conception and afterwards during breastfeeding – it’s advisable to make sure you’re getting enough iodine in your diet. That’s because pregnant women need more of this mineral, as it’s important for the development of their baby’s brain. However according to the BDA (the association of UK dietitians), studies suggest pregnant women are deficient in iodine (xvii).
The main sources of iodine in the UK diet are milk, other dairy products and fish. According to the NHS, women who are pregnant should try to eat two portions of fish a week, one of which should be oily fish such as salmon, sardines or mackerel. However, there are some types of fish you should avoid while pregnant or planning to get pregnant, namely shark, swordfish and marlin (xviii).
The BDA also recommends eating three portions of dairy foods a day during pregnancy. However, bear in mind that organic milk has been found to have a lower amount of iodine than non-organic milk.
It can, however, be difficult to get enough iodine during pregnancy, as the recommended daily requirement is higher than that for other adults (the World Health Organization recommends 250µg iodine a day for pregnant and breastfeeding women, whereas women who aren’t pregnant need 150µg iodine daily (xx)).
Taking a daily multivitamin and mineral pregnancy supplement that contains iodine may be useful. Look for a supplement that contains iodine in the form of potassium iodide or potassium iodate, and check that it supplies around 140 - 150µg of iodine per daily intake.
Pregnancy can be an exciting time, but it’s still important to follow these steps to ensure that you and your baby remain and healthy, and happy, as possible. For more health advice just like this, feel free to visit our health library.
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Christine Morgan has been a freelance health and wellbeing journalist for almost 20 years, having written for numerous publications including the Daily Mirror, S Magazine, Top Sante, Healthy, Woman & Home, Zest, Allergy, Healthy Times and Pregnancy & Birth; she has also edited several titles such as Women’ Health, Shine’s Real Health & Beauty and All About Health.