Janine Gard is a diploma qualified birth educator and founder of Bellies to Babies. She has taught more than 2900 parents to feel confident, informed, supported and prepared.
You are probably very familiar with the discomforts of pregnancy and I'm sure the people around you will be constantly reminding you - things such as leg cramps, nausea and vomiting, fatigue, aches and pains and heartburn to name a few.
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Yet, believe it or not, your baby isn't the only good thing you get out of childbearing. Extra hormones not only encourage your baby's development, they also have an effect on your wellbeing. Some can actually improve your health during and after pregnancy. What's more, birth and breastfeeding offer some healthful benefits of their own.
Wonderful changes are taking place in your body. And you'll experience some of the benefits for a long time to come. Let's take a look at these together.
Bye-Bye menstrual cramps and hello easier periods
Sooner or later after childbirth, your menstrual cycle will resume, timing will depend on several factors such as whether you are breastfeeding or not. But here's a welcome side effect: you may have fewer bothersome cramps. Some women even find that menstrual pain ceases altogether after pregnancy and childbirth. This pain reduction is a well-known phenomenon; childbirth eliminates some of the prostaglandin receptor sites in the uterus. Prostaglandins, hormones that direct the uterus to contract during labor, also play a role in monthly menstrual pain. The upshot? Fewer pain-receptor sites means fewer cramps, yay!
Your cancer risk is reduced
Recent studies report that pregnancy may be an effective protector against breast and ovarian cancers. The more pregnancies you go through - and the younger you start having babies - the greater the effect.
Some research has found that breastfeeding for longer than three months can also lower your risk of certain cancers. In addition, scientists are studying the cells that are exchanged between yourself and your baby via the placenta. Fetal material including DNA from the fetus, tiny pieces of the placenta and potent fetal cells travel around your bloodstream and sneak into your organs during pregnancy. These cells may help you recover after birth and reduce the risk of rheumatoid arthritis and breast cancer. This is based on the fact that ovulation ceases during the nine months of pregnancy, and suggests that women who ovulate less are less likely to develop breast or ovarian cancer. It will be interesting to watch how these studies develop.
Senses are heightened
Pregnancy seems to enhance your perception of taste, but most likely because your sense of smell increases. Yes, that same nose that made your morning sickness worse in early pregnancy can make food taste especially delicious later on. This is due to higher levels of oestrogen. One theory for why it develops is that it may help you instinctively avoid dangerous substances such as alcohol, tobacco, secondhand smoke and harsh chemicals.
Better body image and confidence
As the ultimate do-it-yourself project, pregnancy can be a unique confidence builder. Some women find their body image actually improves with pregnancy and many are in awe at their inner strength and confidence in their bodies.
Birth has often been compared to marathon running, for good reason. Studies suggest that women may gain an appreciation of their strength after going through labour and birth. At minimum, pregnancy and birth can change your perspective for the better. They force you to be more aware of the big picture. When you're living with the knowledge that your body is creating a new human and then birthing them into the world, other minor issues may not seem so important.
A bigger brain
I can say from experience that "mummy brain" — the phenomenon of forgetting details such as names and dates after your baby is born (or perhaps while you are pregnant) - is real, but there's another side to that neurological coin. A study comparing brain scans of women a few weeks postpartum and again three or four months later showed a small but significant amount of growth in a number of brain regions. These areas play roles in planning, foresight, emotional regulation, motivation and reward behavior, all of which help the mother care for her child, in other words: the maternal instinct.
Lasting relationships have their own benefits. Let's look at an example: our elders, who are more connected to the outside world, especially through their children and grandchildren, are often healthier, mentally and physically, than those who are isolated and have little social contact. So motherhood continues to pay off late in life. Research has also shown that belonging to a great social network (such as a coffee or parenting group) is associated with healthier mental functioning and may help ward off postnatal depression.
So, enjoy the added benefits that pregnancy brings you, and next time someone mentions how swollen your ankles are, remind them of all the good stuff too!
• For information about antenatal classes near you, check out From Bellies to Babies www.hbantenatal-classes.co.nz or phone 022 637 0624. I'd love you to join me.
Medical disclaimer: This page is for educational and informational purposes only and should not be construed as medical advice. The information is not intended to replace medical advice offered by physicians.