Many mothers are surprised to find out that it’s not only the belly that grows during pregnancy. Moms find that their face, legs, breasts, hands, and feet all enlarge as their body makes space for a baby. Some of this is from natural weight gain: the hormones of pregnancy cue a pregnant woman’s body to store nutrient - and fat - reserves. Some swelling is normal in pregnancy due to the dramatic increase in fluid levels in the body. And some swelling is cause for alarm. Learn what is normal, what needs attention, and how to reduce swelling during pregnancy.
What causes swelling in pregnancy?
Weight gain in pregnancy slows down the circulation of blood and bodily fluids, particularly to the legs and feet. Because of this, women retain more fluids during pregnancy than at other times of their life.
By the third trimester, a woman’s blood volume has increased by 50%. Blood vessels have to rapidly expand to keep up with the necessary blood volume for a healthy mom and baby. The extra fluids help a mother’s body to soften and open in order for childbirth, as well as provide cushion on the pelvis. Increased fluids account for 25% of a pregnant woman’s weight gain.
This fluid level increase is often the cause of swelling, also called edema. Small amounts of swelling are considered normal in pregnancy. Edema can occur in the hands, face, feet, ankles, and legs.
Swelling is most likely to occur in the third trimester of pregnancy. Other factors that increase edema are excess heat, standing or sitting for long periods of time, high sodium or caffeine intake, and long days of activity. While some swelling is normal, view your swelling as a message from your body asking you to better care for yourself.
When swelling is a problem:
Any sudden changes in swelling are a sign that something may not be right, especially if there is extreme swelling in your hands, feet, or ankles. Swelling that is accompanied by shortness of breath, nausea, vision changes, headaches, or bodily pain may be a sign of preeclampsia and require medical attention. Preeclampsia is a serious medical condition indicated by the symptoms above along with high blood pressure. It requires immediate attention for the safety of mother and baby.
Swelling in one leg more than the other when paired with tenderness or pain may be a sign of a blood clot. If swelling occurs with chest pain it could be related to a heart problem and is cause for concern.
If any amount of swelling seems sudden or unusual to you, consult your healthcare provider, (such as your OB/GYN or Midwife), for answers. It’s always best to play it safe in pregnancy.
How to reduce swelling during pregnancy:
Swelling isn’t an automatic sentence in pregnancy! In fact, there are many lifestyle choices mothers can make to reduce swelling. Here are some easy ways to reduce swelling for all mothers-to-be.
- Drink more water! Water helps keep things flowing and moving throughout the body. While adding fluids may seem counterintuitive if your body thinks it is dehydrated it will try to hold on to even more fluids. It is important to keep up, or even increase, your water intake during pregnancy.
- Don’t sit or stand for too long. Sitting or standing let’s gravity pull the blood flow down into the legs. Added weight and gravity make it difficult for blood to then recirculate back upwards. Frequent stretch breaks are necessary during pregnancy! Take breaks from sitting by walking around or from standing by lying down once every 30 minutes to an hour if possible. When sitting, try not to cross your legs.
- Regular gentle exercise helps keep everything moving in the body. It lubricates your joints, helps metabolize hormones, and can reduce simple pains. Try to exercise for 30 minutes each day. Take a short walk daily or enjoy a gentle yoga practice. Swimming is a fabulous exercise during pregnancy and allows your entire body to be buoyant and horizontal, rather than most vertical forms of exercise. Check to see if your local gym or yoga studio offers prenatal exercise classes.
- Elevate your feet and legs. Lifting your legs up above your heart, either on a stack of pillows or up against the wall, is one of the best things you can do to reduce swelling. When you can’t elevate your feet and legs this high try to use an ottoman or step stool underneath your feet to reduce the distance your blood has to travel along the lower limbs.
- Massage is known to reduce inflammation and increase circulation. A massage in pregnancy is not indulgent: it is basic self-care! Massage - or have someone else massage! - your legs and feet regularly, using long strokes to direct blood flow back towards the heart. Using firm pressure helps move some of the fluid and reduce swelling. Massage reduces muscle tension and encourages lymphatic flow. If your swelling is uncomfortable, try massaging with a cream like Aromalief Hemp Pain Relief Cream Mild Scent in lavender. Side benefit: massage is incredibly relaxing and the scent of lavender can help you sleep better.
- Enjoy that long bath. The body is in a neutral gravity space in the water. Make sure the bath isn’t too hot as this can increase swelling. Add some Epsom salts or sea salts and your favorite essential oils to reduce any muscle pain. Climb in and relax away your swelling! Many mothers make baths a part of their regular self-care practice.
- Increase potassium and magnesium. Bananas, avocados, coconut water, sweet potatoes, spinach, nettle tea, and almonds are all good food sources of potassium and magnesium. Even magnesium or potassium supplements can do the trick to ease swelling. While some dietitians say to reduce sodium during pregnancy, others suggest salting food to taste using real sea salt with no additives in order to maintain a healthy balance of minerals. Potassium and magnesium also help reduce muscle cramps and constipation, both of which are common in pregnancy.
- Some mothers find compression tights and socks reduce swelling in their feet and lower legs. Compression socks or tights are easy to use. They provide gentle pressure on the legs to increase blood flow back up the legs. Compression tights come in different sizes and styles, from knee height to thigh height, providing heavy, medium, or light pressure. Compression tights not only increase circulation, they also reduce the likelihood of developing varicose veins and deep vein thrombosis. If swelling is particularly persistent, try putting on thigh-high compression tights before you get out of bed in the morning.
- Rest! There are so many reasons everyone tells you to rest during pregnancy and lowering your swelling is one of them. It’s okay to lie down, take a nap, or just elevate your legs when you need to during pregnancy. Lying on your left side is best to encourage good circulation for mama and ideal blood flow to the baby.
If you are experiencing swelling in pregnancy try some of the above remedies for quick relief. As always, consult your doctor, OB/GYN, or midwife with any concerns regarding swelling. We’d love to hear from you: let us know what helps you to reduce swelling the most in pregnancy!
This blog post is not intended to replace the advice of a medical professional. Please consult your doctor prior to making any health decisions.
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