Pregnancy normally lasts about 40 weeks from conception to delivery of the baby. During this time, a single fertilized cell develops into a fully grown fetus that is able to survive outside the uterus. For the fetus to develop, it must be protected in the uterus and nourished by the mother. Although this process usually progresses smoothly, sometimes problems may develop.
Problems during pregnancy may affect the mother, the fetus, or both. Many of the most common disorders are mild and short-lived, but others may be severe or even life-threatening to the mother or the fetus.
The first article in this section deals with common complaints that occur at some time during most pregnancies. These complaints are usually minor and can often be relieved by simple self-help measures. High-risk pregnancies and pre-existing conditions that should be taken into consideration when planning a pregnancy are discussed next. The remaining articles in this section cover various problems that may occur at different stages of pregnancy.
In developed countries, pregnancy is no longer a major health risk for most women. In some cases, problems in pregnancy can be averted by good antenatal care and a healthy lifestyle before and during pregnancy. Pregnant women can stay healthy by eating a nutritious diet and exercising regularly (see Exercise and relaxation in pregnancy).
For more information on the development of a normal pregnancy, see Pregnancy and Childbirth.
Labour is the process of birth, from the first strong contractions of the uterus to the delivery of the baby and placenta. Labour may last up to 24 hours for a first pregnancy but tends to be shorter in subsequent pregnancies. In most cases, the stages of labour progress smoothly. When problems do occur, they are rarely serious if they are identified and treated promptly.
Improvements in monitoring and more effective pain relief have made labour a safer and much less traumatic experience than it once was. In the past, little relief was available to help mothers cope with the extreme pain of a difficult labour, and complications often threatened the life of the mother or baby, or sometimes both.
The first article in this section looks at abnormal presentation, a condition in which the fetus is not lying in the normal position in the uterus, the easiest position for delivery. Problems that may complicate labour and delivery, usually because the fetus is unable to pass through the mother’s pelvis, are covered next.
Two relatively rare conditions are discussed in the final part of this section. Fetal distress arises when the fetus is deprived of sufficient oxygen for its needs. This condition may occur at any stage of pregnancy, but is more common during labour. The final article discusses stillbirth, a rare and distressing situation that occurs when a fetus dies in the womb later than 20 weeks into a pregnancy or, even more rarely, when a baby dies during labour.
For more information on pregnancy and the stages of childbirth, see Pregnancy and Childbirth.
Childbirth is an exhilarating experience for many women, but it can also be difficult and painful. In addition to recovering from physical trauma, the body has to adapt to the abrupt changes in hormone levels after the birth. This hormonal fluctuation, which causes physiological changes, particularly in the breasts in preparation for breast-feeding, often leads to emotional swings.
Once the baby and the placenta have been delivered, the uterus starts to revert to its size before pregnancy. This process takes about 6 weeks. However, it may take several months for muscle tone to be regained in the abdomen, and any excess weight gained during pregnancy will have to be lost through a careful diet and exercise. The breasts remain enlarged while breast-feeding and only return to their normal size once the baby has been weaned.
The first article covers excessive bleeding occurring immediately after the delivery of the baby or in the first few weeks following childbirth.
Depression, which is covered next, is very common after the birth of a baby. Feelings range from mild baby blues to severe depression that requires hospital treatment. The final articles in this section cover breast disorders that can occur after childbirth, often in association with breast-feeding.
For more information on the physical changes during and after a normal pregnancy, see Pregnancy and Childbirth.
From the 2010 revision of the Complete Home Medical Guide © Dorling Kindersley Limited.