Why is Prenatal Care Important?

Early and regular prenatal care is very important to the health of your baby and to your own health during pregnancy. If problems do arise, regular visits to your doctor can allow him or her to identify and treat complications as soon as possible. Studies also show that compared with babies whose mothers get prenatal care, those whose mothers don’t have a greater risk of low birth weight and of death.

What Happens Throughout Each Trimester?

Each trimester, or three-month period, of pregnancy is marked by different phases of development for the fetus and changes to the mother’s body. Regular visits to the doctor remain important throughout each trimester. Appropriate exams and tests will be performed as pregnancy progresses.

First Trimester

During the first trimester (the first 12 weeks after the first day of the last menstrual period), an egg is released by the mother’s body and is fertilized by a sperm. The fertilized egg then travels down the fallopian tube toward the uterus, where it implants (attaches) to the lining of the uterus. The fertilized egg is now considered an embryo and will grow in size and develop throughout the first trimester. By the end of the third month, the embryo is called a fetus.

During this time, the mother’s breasts will start to change, but she is not likely to look pregnant. She may also begin to experience dizziness, frequent urination, heartburn, food aversions and cravings, and morning sickness. Hormonal changes may also cause irritability and mood swings.

Second Trimester

At the beginning of the fourth month of pregnancy, when the second trimester begins, the baby is about 4 inches long and weighs just over an ounce. Some mothers begin to feel the baby move at this time. As the second trimester continues, the baby begins to grow muscle and hair and becomes more active. Toward the end of this trimester, the baby’s skin is covered with fine hair, called lanugo, and a waxy substance that protects the skin, called vernix. Brain development continues. He or she will be around 11 to 14 inches long by the end of the sixth month and weigh about 1 to 1.5 pounds.

Pregnant women may find that some of the discomforts of the first semester will ease during the second and that other discomforts will increase. Second-trimester discomforts can include skin changes, forgetfulness, swelling, backaches, nosebleeds, heartburn, constipation, and hemorrhoids. Pregnancy starts to show as the baby grows, and many women start to wear maternity clothes.

Third Trimester

The third trimester begins with the seventh month of pregnancy. The baby can open and close his or her eyes, continues to move, and can suck his or her thumb and make grasping motions. The baby continues to grow and gain weight throughout the third trimester. By the ninth month, the baby drops into a head-down position to be ready for birth. He or she now weighs between 6 and 9 pounds and is about 20 inches long.

For the mother, symptoms of the second trimester are likely to increase during the third, and she may have swelling in the legs, leg cramps, backaches, and shortness of breath and develop varicose veins.

What Happens During Childbirth?

When you arrive at the hospital to have your baby, be prepared to give your healthcare providers the following information about your labor so far:

  • The date and time contractions began and their average duration and frequency
  • The date, time, color, and amount of vaginal discharge
  • The date, time, and color of fluid if your water has broken
  • When you last ate, had a bowel movement, and if you’ve had diarrhea

You’ll typically be given an exam that will include taking your temperature, pulse, breathing rate, blood pressure, and possible other tests.

Labor and Delivery

There are four stages of labor, which include: 1) from onset of progressive contractions until the cervix is completely dilated; 2) from complete dilation to birth of the baby; 3) from birth of the baby to delivery of the placenta; 4) from delivery of the placenta to when the mother’s medical condition is stable and safe. Labor is different for every mother and can vary in length and difficulty.

Labor can also be induced if your doctor determines that it’s time for your baby to born but true labor hasn’t started. Medication is used to induce labor.

What Is an Epidural?

An epidural is a type of anesthesia that’s used to relieve pain during labor. An anesthesiologist administers an epidural as follows: A local anesthetic is injected into a small area of the back to numb it. A catheter is then inserted into the numbed area. As needed during labor, anesthesia is injected through the catheter.

By relieving pain, an epidural allows the mother to rest and focus on the birth instead of the pain. Other advantages of an epidural include little exposure to the medicine for the baby and no drowsiness for the mother, as with some other pain relievers.

Although research has widely proven that use of an epidural during childbirth is generally safe, there are several risks:

  • The risk for a sudden drop in blood pressure: A mother’s blood pressure is monitored for this event so that it can be addressed immediately.
  • The risk for severe headache caused by leakage of spinal fluid: This occurs in less than 1 percent of women.
  • Possible side effects: These including shivering, ringing of the ears, backache, soreness where the needle is inserted, nausea, or difficulty urinating.
  • Difficulty pushing: Forceps may be needed to help pull the baby through the birth canal.
  • Numbness in the lower half of your body: The mother may require assistance walking after the birth.

Having a Healthy Pregnancy

In addition to seeing your doctor regularly during pregnancy, these general tips will help keep you and your fetus healthy:

  • Avoid X-rays. If you must have diagnostic tests, including dental X-rays, tell your doctor or dentist that you are pregnant. Precautions can be taken.
  • Get a flu shot. Flu may be more severe in pregnant women and require hospitalization.
  • Ask your doctor whether you should take a daily prenatal vitamin.
  • Don’t smoke, drink alcohol, or use drugs.
  • Gain a healthy amount of weight—your doctor will help you determine how much you should be gaining.
  • Unless your doctor has told you to avoid physical activity, stay active. If you’ve always been active, talk with your doctor about what level of activity you can maintain. A minimum recommendation is two-and-a-half hours per week of moderate-intensity activity, spread out throughout the week.
  • Avoid hot baths and hot tubs.
  • Manage stress levels and get plenty of sleep.
  • Learn about childbirth and caring for a newborn—books, classes, videos, your doctor, and other mothers can all be excellent resources.

Nutrition Tips

  • Eat healthy foods, including plenty of fruits and vegetables and foods that are rich in calcium.
  • Drink plenty of fluids—mostly water.
  • Get adequate nutrients from a variety of healthy foods. Iron is particularly important—it prevents anemia, which puts your fetus at risk for preterm birth and low birth weight.
  • Don’t eat fish that tend to be high in mercury. These include swordfish, king mackerel, shark, and tilefish.
  • Protect yourself from food-borne illnesses: wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly and don’t eat undercooked meat or fish.