Hairy knuckles and night sweats: the not-so-wonderful ways pregnancy changes your body
Going beyond that pregnancy glow
While her sister-in-law was complimented for her pregnancy glow, all Aqsa Mubeen got was perspiration and nausea. Even a whiff of something floral-scented would have her bent over the toilet. She knew pregnancy changes your body but she wasn’t expecting this.
In her second trimester, she started to get very sweaty. It would seep through her clothes at night. She even started sleeping on a towel so she wouldn’t have to keep changing the sheets.
“It’s incredible that I’m carrying another human inside me right now. But it feels so out of control,” she laments, currently still pretty sweaty and not just because she’s about to give birth during a pandemic.
Pregnancy changes your body in seriously strange ways. Mubeen isn’t alone at perspiration station according to Dr Damini Goyal, OB-GYN and fertility specialist. “There can be increased sweating during pregnancy and after birth. Your changing hormones and increased blood circulation can make your body temperature increase. This triggers the body’s sweat reaction to cool itself down.”
According to her, it still isn’t the strangest of ways pregnancy changes your body. “As young girls, we’re told pregnancy is this beautiful experience that fulfils womanhood. Ok, sure, but what about all the gross things that happen to you? I’ve had body acne and severe constipation, and the fear that I’m going to poop during labour keeps me up at night,” laughs Mubeen.
We read about the weekly changes and how the foetus develops but the painful and peculiar nitty-gritties of pregnancy are only experienced. “People don’t like to think about it, but pregnancy and childbirth can be traumatic for a woman’s body. Like an accident or invasive surgery, it’s a physical trauma that requires recovery,” says Goyal.
We wanted to know how women really feel about the changes they experience and their postpartum selves. Let their stories comfort you if you ever felt alone in experiencing these oddities of pregnancy or prepare you for the future if childbirth is on the charts.
When pregnancy changes your body, your hormones take the wheel
Your hormonal rage can catch you off-guard — while you’re trying to squeeze in a nap between feedings and burning through bottles of dry shampoo so you can put off washing your hair.
From pregnancy to after childbirth, your hormones shoot around like ping-pong balls. “Oestrogen and progesterone which are known as the pregnancy hormones immensely increase. This is the highest they will probably ever be in your lifetime. They help develop the foetus but can alter your mood as well,” adds Goyal.
As the hormones start flooding your body, many women notice their skin starts to glow and hair grows shinier and longer. What they don’t tell you is that this lustrous growth can pop up in places you’ve never had hair before.
“It was slow at first and I didn’t really notice because hair on the knuckles is always lighter. Towards the end of my pregnancy, I was shocked to see how dark and hairy my knuckles were. I had to keep shaving it off because it was so embarrassing,” says Jhanvi Sethi.
Sethi had become very irritable around the fifth month of her pregnancy and would find herself snapping angrily at her husband over little things. “During some silly argument, I even remember tears streaming down my face as I was pointing at my belly and screaming ‘you are the one that did this to me!'”
Another hormone that your body starts producing in abundance is relaxin. While that sounds like something we could all use right about now, this hormone “relaxes and loosens the ligaments and joints and widens the woman’s cervix in preparation for childbirth,” according to Goyal.
With the birth of the baby, your hormone levels start to fall. The sudden drop in pregnancy hormones is what causes the ‘baby blues’. This can also lead to postpartum depression and anxiety which affects 22% of Indian women. Oxytocin, the ‘love hormone’ enters the ring, enhancing the motherly feelings, need for nurturing and strengthens the bond between mother and child. Too much of it and you go from protective to paranoid mama, which can cause intense postpartum anxiety.
“It can take four to six months for your hormones to come back to pre-pregnancy levels. This is something to be mindful of. Make sure you have a support system that understands these changes and can help your recovery process,” advises Goyal.
Your lady bits get an uncomfortable makeover
You’d think your uterus has been through enough after childbirth but you will still feel cramps after your delivery. “These can last for upto five days. It enables your uterus to return to its previous state. It takes about five-six weeks for it to fully recover,” says Goyal.
You may need to pick up a pack of adult diapers along with ones for the baby for the postpartum discharge of blood and mucus. A vaginal birth will leave you with swelling, bruising and soreness for a few weeks. Some births require an episiotomy (performed during the second stage of labour to enlarge the opening for the baby to pass through) to prevent vaginal tears during delivery.
While your perineum (the skin between your vaginal opening and anus) recovers from the stitches, you can soothe the soreness with painkillers. Mallika Puri* spent more afternoons with a cold pack pressed against her crotch than she would have ever liked to. “I was just so sore. Everything below my clitoris felt numb, but it ached for the longest time.”
Nerve damage caused by the incision can lead to such numbness, which made Puri panic. Her doctor advised massaging the surrounding area to increase blood flow and promote healing. “Sometimes I’d do it, sometimes my husband would have to. It was strange, to say the least.” It took a few weeks but she healed.
Goyal says that any kind of bleeding, soreness and pain caused by childbirth can be intense but should heal and decrease with time. Developing more aches and pains through your recovery period should be noted along with a trip to your doctor.
Having to use the washroom a lot is a complaint you’ll hear from a lot of pregnant women. The urgency to keep peeing is understandable when your uterus is pressing against your bladder. “But what about when a woman coughs, laughs or sneezes, and she feels a bit of urine trickling out?” says Vanshika Gupta-Adukia, pregnancy specialist, founder of Therhappy and pelvic floor physiotherapist.
A month before her due date, Poornima woke up with a fit of coughing and instantly felt a wetness between her legs. “At first I thought I was in labour, but then shook my head because I knew I had another month left,” she said. “I didn’t even really need to go to the bathroom at that moment but looking down, I realised I had urinated.”
It kept happening to her. At home, at her friend’s home, a restaurant and even after she gave birth. “At first, I just wore a sanitary pad in case it happened but after talking to some friends, I realised this wasn’t normal.”
Turns out her mother had experienced the same thing after her third delivery. “This was over 30 years ago, what did we know about pelvic floor exercises then?” laughs Sayli, Poornima’s mother.
Poornima’s doctor put her in touch with a specialist. Her incontinence got better after she started doing kegels and other exercises to strengthen her pelvic floor muscles that had weakened after her vaginal delivery.
This lack of control isn’t a ‘pregnancy thing’ which sorts itself out. “The pelvic floor is tied between two ends of your pelvic bones and the more load or pressure on it, the more stress it’s going to take,” explains Gupta-Adukia. As the uterus grows with your baby, it increases the load on the pelvic floor which stretches to accommodate as much as it can.
And like any other muscle in your body, it benefits from being regularly worked out.
Your body can snap back but some things stick
Fitness freak Farah Khidwai was in the best shape of her life when she got pregnant. She eased her daily workouts and changed her diet to suit her changing body. But after she gave birth, her body no longer felt like her own. She started questioning the decision that altered the body she once took great pride in showing off.
“After reading all the books, I was preparing myself — mentally and physically — for the changes. I did kegels, used all the topical treatments to keep stretch marks to a minimum and fought hard not to give in to my midnight ice cream cravings,” she says.
As the pregnancy progressed and she gave birth, her nipples had enlarged and started to droop, feet had swollen up a size, her legs developed varicose veins and her stomach skin flopped. “You know that pregnancy changes your body and you think you’re ready for it, but it can hit you pretty hard.”
Mentally dealing with her new body and taking care of an infant became too much and she started feeling symptoms of postpartum depression. “To be honest there were very low points where I regretted getting pregnant. I was the chubby girl all through school so when I had managed to get fit I was very proud. Then it all just changed so fast that my mind couldn’t cope.”
With time, support from her partner and therapy, Khidwai overcame her postpartum depression and came to terms with how pregnancy changes your body. “Most of the physical changes return to their previous state after the baby is born. But yes, there are some things that are permanent,” says Goyal.
“Pregnancy weight gain and increased blood circulation can cause varicose veins also known as spider veins. They become less apparent with time but can be permanent. Pre and postnatal hormonal changes can cause hair fall and acne that leaves marks on the skin.”
Your bespoke footwear collection may need to be given away after you have a baby because doctors say the swelling you had in your feet during the pregnancy could permanently increase your shoe size.
The experiences of the women we spoke to were varied, but there was one sentiment that they shared. They all believe wholeheartedly that giving birth was an amazing experience. While our body is a temple blessed with the miracle of birth, they also want people to know it’s not all sugar and rainbows. Childbearing and birth is messy, gassy and involves a lot of bodily fluids.
Women come to accept that pregnancy changes your body in order to bring a new life into this world. But it’s not an easy process and knowing that helps you prepare for what lies ahead.