written by KD O’Brein
It seems like the first thing that happens when a woman announces that she’s expecting a child, after the first wave of congratulations have all been said, is that suddenly everyone starts holding forth about what she absolutely should and should not do during her pregnancy. With the important caveat that the one person you should absolutely listen to during pregnancy is your doctor, and that everyone’s medical situation differs, here are a few of the more common pieces of advice you can feel free to disregard.
Pregnant women shouldn’t drink coffee.
Despite being thoroughly debunked (and despite the danger of coming between a pregnant woman and whatever is getting her through her aches, pains, and sleepless nights), this is still one of the more culturally prevalent myths surrounding pregnancy. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) is clear that consuming small amounts of caffeine (less than 200 milligrams per day, or the equivalent of one 12-ounce cup of coffee or two 12-ounce cups of caffeinated tea) is not associated with negative outcomes, especially after the first trimester is over.
Only very mild cardiovascular exercise is safe during pregnancy.
More and more, doctors are realizing that the dangers associated with inactivity are often much greater than those associated with exercise. While the ACOG does not advise taking up any new strenuous activity during pregnancy (in other words, you should probably avoid joining that new Crossfit gym), the prevailing recommendation is that a pregnant woman will generally benefit from maintaining any form of exercise she is already accustomed to doing, so long as she modifies as necessary for her new energy levels and the demands pregnancy will put on her body as it progresses (so, for example, runners and yoga practitioners should be careful of the strain these activities place on their joints, as rising levels of relaxin in the body can cause strains and sprains to happen more easily during pregnancy, and athletes may need to increase their calorie intake if they begin losing weight or do not gain weight on schedule during pregnancy).
Pregnant women shouldn’t fly.
This recommendation is partly based on medical fact—namely, that pregnant women are more susceptible to blood clots, and that long flights (over four hours) can impact circulation, increasing the likelihood of clots developing. However, ACOG and the CDC agree that most women without preexisting conditions should be able to fly safely up to the 36th week of their pregnancies, and recommend walking in the aisle or doing seated leg stretches to improve comfort and circulation. And that airport scanner? You’ll get more radiation from the atmosphere around you during the flight itself—a negligible amount, unless you’re a pilot, flight attendant, or other professional who spends most of your time on airplanes.
A piece of sushi is more dangerous than a fruit salad.
Everyone from wait staff to your mother to your nosy co-worker will have an opinion about what you definitely should and definitely should not eat while pregnant, and most of those people will be only too happy to tell you all about it—but, if pressed, will admit they don’t actually know why, exactly, certain foods are so dangerous, or what can be done to make them safer. Most of these risks come down to worries about listeria and salmonella, two types of bacteria associated with food poisoning. Unlike many infections, these bacteria can cross the placenta and can have dramatic effects on a developing fetus, up to and including meningitis, miscarriage, or stillbirth. Additionally, sushi and other fish raise concerns because of their potentially high concentration of mercury. However, fish also contain valuable oils that have been shown to have a highly beneficial effect on the developing brain, and the CDC has linked recent listeria outbreaks to sources as innocent-seeming as mushrooms (produced by Sun Hong Foods, 2020) and salmonella to pre-cut fruit (produced by Taylor Cut Produce in 2019).
So what’s an anxious pregnant lady to do? In short, know your food sources as much as possible. Sushi restaurants flash-freeze their fish, meaning that they’re far less likely to be contaminated than your average grocery store or restaurant offering, and if you opt for varieties less likely to be high in mercury (think salmon rather than tuna), you’ll get the benefits of those tasty brain-beneficial oils without the risks of contamination. Salads you prepare at home, having carefully washed all the ingredients, are safest when it comes to food poisoning risks; many women also feel confident in eating at well-known, reputable restaurants where they have eaten for years without any incidents of food poisoning. When it comes to deli meat, heating it well before eating will kill bacteria—so if you’re craving a giant sandwich, maybe make it a well-done panini rather than cold-cuts.
Morning sickness only happens in the mornings, ends after the first trimester, and can be controlled by diet, sleep, and/or willpower alone.
With high-profile cases (looking at you, Princess Kate) of severe morning sickness, also called hyperemesis gravidarum, bringing the ailment into the public eye, more and more people are becoming aware that women’s mileage may vary considerably with this particular side effect of pregnancy: some women never experience the least bit of nausea; some have very mild symptoms that are easily controlled and don’t outlast the end of the first trimester; some experience violent nausea and vomiting for the entirety of their pregnancy, requiring continuing medication or, in the most severe cases, hospitalization. Other than some links to family history (in other words, if your mom had severe morning sickness, you’re more likely to get it as well), there are few clear explanations of why some women suffer more from this particular ailment than others. It’s important to remember, then, that if you are suffering from persistent or severe morning sickness, it’s probably due to your genetics rather than anything you have or haven’t done, and that there are medications that can help which have been thoroughly studied to ensure their safety for you and your baby.
The shape of your belly, your complexion, or your cravings can tell you whether you’re having a girl or a boy.
While it’s fun to speculate about the sex of your baby, carrying high or low, getting pimples, or craving salty or sweet things all have more to do with your individual reaction to pregnancy hormones than anything else. Genetic testing and anatomy ultrasounds are much more accurate predictors (although it seems like everyone has a friend, cousin, or cousin’s friend who was “told over and over again” that they were having a girl and came home with a boy, or vice versa). Ultimately, this is one thing you’ll learn for sure only once your baby is actually born, but for those who prefer to plan as much as possible, opting for a variety of medical tests (such as genetic testing in addition to the usual anatomy scan around 20 weeks) may help.