When a woman is going to have a baby, it’s called pregnancy. Pregnancy can happen to any woman who has begun menstruating, no matter what age she is. During pregnancy, a fertilized egg becomes an embryo and then develops into a fetus. The mother carries the unborn child in her uterus or ‘womb.’ A normal pregnancy lasts about 40 weeks, or around nine months. Sometimes a pregnancy can last 41 or even 42 weeks. Certain medical conditions or trauma can cause a woman to deliver the baby before 40 weeks. When this happens, the baby may not survive. All pregnant women should get medical care as soon as they know they are carrying a baby.
Signs and Symptoms
The major sign of pregnancy is one or more missed menstrual periods. However, missing a period does not absolutely mean a woman is pregnant. Women’s cycles can be irregular. In general, if a woman has engaged in sexual intercourse, has missed a period, and has any of these other signs or symptoms, she may be pregnant:
• Light, spotty bleeding that does not look like regular menstrual blood
• Nausea and/or vomiting for no apparent reason
• Change in eating habits, such as craving food or developing an aversion to a particular food
• Rapid mood swings
Pregnancy is caused when a man’s sperm fertilizes a woman’s egg. This happens during sexual intercourse when birth control is not used. Not every episode of sexual intercourse will cause pregnancy. A woman only ovulates (releases an egg) once a month, at most. Ovulation is also called a woman’s ‘fertile period.’ During this time, unprotected sex can cause pregnancy.
Any woman who has started menstruating can get pregnant, regardless of how young she may be. If a woman does not use birth control, she is at risk of getting pregnant whenever she has sex. If a woman does not want to get pregnant, she can use a birth control method, including:
Birth control pills
• Intrauterine devices (IUDs), with or without hormones
• Cervical cap
• Depo-Provera (hormone) shots
• Birth control implants
• Birth control patch
• Vaginal ring
• Birth control sponge
• Male or female condom
Any woman who suspects she may be pregnant can take a home pregnancy test. These tests are available over-the-counter and do not require a prescription. For best results, urinate (pee) on the plastic stick device first thing in the morning, when urine is most concentrated. Follow package instructions precisely. Allow the test stick to develop, and then read the results as displayed on the stick. If the home test is positive for pregnancy, the woman should make an appointment with a women’s health care provider as soon as possible.
Labor and Delivery
When a baby is ready to be born, the mother goes into a phase of pregnancy called ‘labor.’ During this time, which can last from a few hours to a day or more, a woman pushes the baby out through the birth canal (vagina). Occasionally, a natural childbirth is not possible and a surgery called Cesarean section is performed. During this surgery an incision is made on the lower part of the mother’s abdomen, and the baby is removed through the incision.
Delivery is the term used to describe the baby’s exit from the mother’s body. The baby often will cry as it takes its first breath, and then the pregnancy is completed.
Preventing Pregnancy Complications
Pregnancy is not without risks. Most pregnancies proceed on schedule with no unusual events, but sometimes complications occur. There is no way to prevent all possible pregnancy complications, but a woman can engage in lifestyle habits that may reduce the risk to herself and her baby. Some good prenatal habits include:
- Eating a healthy diet
- Taking prenatal vitamins
- Exercising at a safe level, as determined by a health care provider
- Quitting smoking
- Avoiding all alcohol use
- Avoiding illicit drug use and exposure to others using drugs
- Reviewing routine medications with a health care provider to make sure they are safe for a developing baby
- Controlling any pre-existing conditions, like diabetes
- Avoiding all contact with cat litter boxes
- Avoiding contact with toxic substances, whether inhaled or by touching
- Seeing the dentist regularly for good oral health
- Wearing a seatbelt and observing other common safety precautions
- Following your health care provider’s instructions