What Not to Do During Pregnancy ? Pregnancy Myths and Made up ‘Rules’

By Sofie Jacobs

The moment you receive that positive result on your pregnancy test there’s a strong chance that one of the first things you ask the internet about is pregnancy do’s and don’ts. Suddenly there are a lot of ‘shoulds’ and ‘shouldn’ts’ about what is advisable behaviour during pregnancy. From the ‘old wives tales’ to the scientifically proven to the simply ‘best not to’ advice, it can be hard to navigate these often vague and obscure pregnancy rules, and pregnancy myths. It often seems like there’s a new study or statistic every week, adding to the immense list of things to avoid or change during each trimester.

As a midwife I’m asked about these ‘rules’ constantly, from what pregnant women should or shouldn’t eat, to the risks of drinking the occasional glass of wine, to the best way to exercise or even how much to travel. Everyone wants to know how their behaviour or actions are going to impact (or not impact) the health or happiness of their unborn baby. That’s only natural. But it can make pregnancy feel complicated and unsafe. In fact, at times they can become a significant source of stress, which is not what any pregnant mama needs.

My advice for any expectant mum-to-be is to talk to her primary caregiver, or a trusted maternity professional about any concerns or questions they might have. However, at the same time I think it’s important for women not disregard their own reason and instincts. Research is great and can be very useful, but it’s important to be mindful of the fact that there is a lot of noise (and lots of irrelevant pregnancy myths) out there!

Own your rules

Giving up alcohol, cutting out caffeine and going easy on the exercise are perhaps three of the first things that most newly pregnant women do. There is evidence that alcohol abuse can have an effect on an unborn baby, but there’s no data to suggest that the occasional drink during pregnancy is going to harm your baby. Likewise, excessive caffeine consumption has been linked to miscarriage and low birth weights, and it’s advised to have no more than 200 milligrams (mg) a day which is about the same as two mugs of instant coffee.

It’s well known that your body creates the hormone relaxin throughout pregnancy, which effectively makes your muscles have extra laxity, so it’s advisable to amend your workouts to cater for this, no one wants an injury when they’re expecting a baby. That doesn’t mean you have to give up exercise – in fact regular exercise is very beneficial during pregnancy.

The trick is to find where you feel comfortable, own your rules and be aware of pregnancy myths. One glass of wine a week? Only on special occasions? Or not at all. As long as you are being sensible and are well-informed, you should feel free to own your own rules.

The same can be said of exercise. If running is a familiar activity for you, your pregnancy is uncomplicated and you feel great running, then keep on doing it – you don’t have to stop just because you have a baby on board (although you should always listen to cues from your body and may have to slow down as you get bigger). Whereas starting a severe weight lifting routine when you have no experience in that field may be less advisable. It’s all about being realistic. By and large the generally accepted ‘pregnancy dos and don’ts’ are flexible, and exist to be tempered to each individual.

In fact, I’d go as far as saying there are far too many ‘pregnancy rules’ as I call them – with many of them being scare stories or simply unsubstantiated pregnancy myths. It’s these data-less or inconclusive ones that get me worked up, because I see it again and again how the media jumps onto the idea of something being good or bad during pregnancy – mainly for the hype factor, leaving thousands of women unsure about the real information or risks.

Rule benders

Inevitably each country has its own traditions and accepted ‘rules’ and they change from place to place, from year to year. For example in China, women are discouraged from exercise and physical exertion, whereas in the Netherlands it’s seen as beneficial to stay active and keep moving. In the US and in the UK women are told to switch to decaf coffee, whereas in Italy, a pregnant woman ordering an espresso is unlikely to raise any eyebrows.

Similarly raw fish and sushi is treated with trepidation in many European countries during pregnancy but in Japan it’s seen as fundamental for a healthy diet. You see? It’s a can of worms. And essentially these differences of opinion and approach only serve to prove that everything is open to interpretation.

To drink or not to drink – that is the question

I get asked about this all the time! Often alcohol and caffeine are two of the most difficult things to give up during pregnancy, but is it really as cut and dry as that? Just how harmful is it to drink caffeine or alcohol? What exactly are the risks? It’s normal for many women I work with to be extremely nervous – even afraid – about consuming alcohol or caffeine throughout their pregnancy.

In both cases there are lot of conflicting studies – meaning that there is no conclusive evidence to base anything on.

In fact no scientific evidence exists at all to say that consuming a few irregular units of alcohol is damaging. If avoiding both caffeine and alcohol makes you feel sensible and safe then stick to your own rule – knowing what you’re comfortable with is really positive for your peace of mind.  On the flipside, if you enjoy having the odd glass of wine or morning cup of coffee, then be reassured that it is safe to do so. Essentially, it’s about doing your research, defining what’s right for you and owning it.

Sushi, salad and sleep?

I call these the three ‘s’s. There’s a lot of fear about the kinds of damage you can potentially inflict on your baby from eating unwashed salad, eating raw fish and sleeping on the ‘wrong’ side of your body.

The chance of getting sick from bacteria or parasites on salad or sushi doesn’t dramatically go up when you’re pregnant, and of course, it’d be nicer never to get sick at all, but the risks are incredibly, incredibly low. However in some countries, like Hong Kong for example, pregnant women are encouraged not to eat salad at all, to avoid any possible exposure to the toxoplasmosis parasite which is associated with miscarriage and stillbirth.

Just the mention of these words are enough to chill the blood of any mum to be, so it’s completely natural to be wary, the most important thing to understand the risks and to trust your own judgement.

Before we lived in the age of information overload, women had to rely on their instincts and use the power of reason. The risks associated with each of these ‘s’ words are minimal. If you really can’t sleep on your left side, then by all means, go to sleep on your right side – sleep is undoubtedly important for all pregnant women so get it however you can! While there have been studies into a possible link between sleeping on your back in the last trimester and stillbirth, they’ve been completely inconclusive. Besides, most women find sleeping on their back too uncomfortable in the last trimester anyway, and will naturally turn to sleep on their side. Sometimes it does feel like testing for testing’s sake.

Cumulatively these many pregnancy myths and dos and don’ts can play havoc with the stress levels of any mum to be.  So my advice is to try not to get overwhelmed. Zoom out a little and try to find the perspective and balance amid the maze of advice. Learning how to navigate differing opinions of what you should or shouldn’t do is going to come in especially handy when your baby arrives (trust me – everyone always has an opinion to share!). Stick to your guns and own your decisions.

I would certainly say that there is merit and value in having some rules or guidelines to follow when it comes to pregnancy. Sadly however, women who need these rules tend to not follow them. Often women who naturally lead a healthy and safe enough lifestyle to grow a baby tend to follow these rules  to nth degree which can actually have the effect of making pregnancy a very stressful experience.

One piece of advice that all my clients find very useful is, when in doubt, ask themselves what their own mother would have done. The answer usually helps put things into perspective as ultimately, you are your mother’s daughter – and you know how you turned out!

Further reading

If reading up on theories and researching is your thing then I can highly recommend Emily Oster’s book, ‘Expecting Better’ which really helps to put all the rules and pregnancy fear-mongering (yes sadly there are whole industries dedicated to making money from the fears of mums to be) into perspective.  Emily is an economist and uses her analytical and risk evaluation skills to form the basis of her decisions.

It makes for an enlightening read and whether or not you make the same decisions as she does, in terms of diet, exercise, sleep etc, it certainly highlights the fact that pregnancy is personal. Ultimately, we’re all making the rules up as we go along – and having your own rules for what you feel comfortable with during pregnancy is a good place to be. Whether you cut out alcohol completely or eat the occasional sushi roll, negotiating risks and taking decisions that make you feel happy and confident is extremely good practice for parenthood – you’ll be using these skills for a long, long time to come!

Pregnant and unsure which pregnancy myths to ignore? Check out HATCH, our online prenatal preparation programmes. 

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