How to Survive the First Trimester of Pregnancy


Don’t get me wrong, there are lots of fantastic things about being pregnant. You’ll be inundated with good wishes, your spouse will adore you, you have the excitement of a little human being on the way, and for the first time people will say “well done!” for having unprotected sex—a surprisingly common and rather peculiar response to the news given that the getting pregnant part was no hardship. The being pregnant part, however, can be a nightmare.

In spite of all the joy and anticipation, the first three months of my pregnancy were among the worst months of my life. Sickness, sadness, and an onslaught of other symptoms left me utterly incapacitated and, frankly, questioning whether I would be able to continue. I was left desperately searching the internet for some confirmation that what was happening to my body, mind and emotions was normal, that it would get better, and that in the mean time there was something I could do to help. For all the wealth of information out there (most of it alarmist and terrifying), it was surprisingly difficult to find what I was looking for. So, without further ado, a list of a few things you might be going through if you, too, are in the throes of the first trimester, and some ideas about how to improve your lot until the blessed week 14 (or 40).

Caveat: I am not a doctor or midwife, merely a woman who tried an awful lot of things before finding something that worked (even a little). As ever, seek professional advice if you have any questions or concerns.

  • “Morning” Sickness: Never was a thing more misnamed. For me, it was two solid months of 24/7 nausea. At its best it was lurking in the background. At its worst, it was vomiting uncontrollably all over a nice hotel room (I’m forever indebted to my husband for cleaning that mess up). It was, frankly, hell. But some things helped. For one, protein protein protein. Chicken, beef, bacon—whatever I could stomach—saved me a world of misery. It seemed to even out the blood sugar crashes that brought on the worst of the vomiting and generally fortified me. Frequent small meals (I mean every 15 minutes to one hour, and not a moment longer) were also essential. I kept cheese, nuts and fruit by the bed in the night, and a plate of the same, plus yogurt or chicken soup (or bone broth) with me every second of the day. I also sipped approved herbal teas (peppermint, ginger, Tulsi, and olive leaf worked for me) with honey, lemon and Great Lakes Collagen powder all day. I did sometimes resort to saltines (particularly post throwing up), but generally tried to avoid spiking the blood sugar with carbs and sugar. I didn’t feel like eating for three months, but my lovely husband force fed me when I refused nourishment, and I am forever grateful to him for it. Otherwise all I can say is that it actually does get better, even if it feels like it never will.
  • Food Aversions: The only thing I could eat one day I often couldn’t look at the next. I advise not buying too much of any one thing at the grocery store, because I can’t tell you how many things I bought tons of when it was the only thing I could eat and then had to throw away when I couldn’t stand the sight of it. Obviously if it makes you vomit, don’t eat it. If it’s healthy and you can eat it, enjoy it while it lasts.
  • Food Cravings: My cravings were: coffee, wine, beer, McDonalds hamburgers, French fries, and cake. So much for your body telling you what it needs. I completely gave in to the fries, and had the occasional sip (and I mean sip, not gulp) of coffee and wine. I didn’t miss the alcohol or caffeine, but just the richness of coffee at the start of the day, and the pleasure of wine in the evening. I wish I knew how to make those cravings easier, but I don’t. Just remember, it’s only nine months (ha ha…ha).
  • Things You Aren’t Supposed to Eat: The list of verboten items for pregnant women, ranging from alcohol to brie, is very, very long and often based on extreme studies or circumstances. For instance, the study that linked increased chance of miscarriage with caffeine consumption was based on women who drank more than three cups of coffee a day. The alcohol and birth defects one was similar. Fears about fish mainly have to do with mercury poisoning (you can research which fish have a higher mercury content and avoid them) and food poisoning (hence the sushi warnings). The fear with dairy is listeria, which can occur (but rarely does) in unpasteurized milk and cheese. While obviously food poisoning will have much more dire effects if you’re pregnant, I’m guessing you already avoid foods and circumstances where you might encounter it. I, for one, ate sushi from restaurants I trusted, didn’t worry one bit about cheeses, and had the very occasional and very tiny sip of coffee and wine throughout my pregnancy, always on a full stomach (to say nothing of the lattes and margaritas I downed before I found out I was pregnant). Some women are ok with drinking a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, particularly in the second and third trimesters. I wasn’t, but I really and truly couldn’t see how a tiny sip of something would impact either my body or my child’s. Do your research. Talk to your healthcare provider. Make up your own mind.
  • Prenatal Vitamin Issues: After tons of research (and trying a couple of others that were available at the local store), I went for the MegaFood Baby & Me 2 variety. It’s whole food based, has folate instead of folic acid, etc. I took them almost every single day during my first trimester. I felt infinitely better on the days I didn’t take them (some blame the iron for causing nausea, but I found they also made me tired). Finally, towards week 14 of pregnancy, when I was able to eat most things again, I decided to cut back to one every few days and focus on getting all my nutrients from food. I’m not going to lie, this was a really expensive approach. Organic fruits and vegetables (I still couldn’t stomach the green ones), farmers market fare, local meat and yogurt etc. ain’t cheap. But I did feel infinitely better for it. I’ve always taken, but continued to take, a good probiotic, fermented cod liver oil, and Omega-3 supplements.
  • Fatigue: Fatigue was what made me suspect I was pregnant in the first place. I’ve never, ever taken naps, even as a toddler, but about two weeks after conception I was taking them every day. I remember speaking to and reading about so many women who all said something along the lines of “I was so exhausted during my first trimester, I slept eight hours a night and took a nap every day.” For two months I slept between 15 and 20 hours a day, and could hardly move for the hours I was awake. If I did get a spurt of energy and decided to be healthy and exercise, it seemed to deplete all my reserves and I would sleep through the entire next day. I never, ever felt well rested (diving cells is a lot of work!), but I did feel better the more protein I ate.
  • Depression: This is a tough one. Apparently prenatal depression affections 10-15% of women. It sure hit me hard. I felt completely isolated and alone in the world. My family was far away, I was the first of all my friends to get pregnant, and as incredibly supportive as my husband was he really couldn’t have possibly understood what I was going through. Depression was actually the very first symptom that hit me, before I even knew I was pregnant. My husband and I spent the week before I took the test at one of the nicest hotels in Napa, in a suite right next to the one where we spent a blissful few days of our honeymoon. While he passed the day slaving away at a wine symposium, I spent days in the pool, bath, hot tub, and sauna (the latter three caused a few panic attacks later after reading about risks on the internet). I should have been peaceful as could be, but instead I felt anxious and unhappy, and had no idea why. This feeling got so, so much worse as the weeks went by. I wasn’t excited about being pregnant, I couldn’t motivate myself to do anything, I felt alone, sick, and generally profoundly miserable. Because I was traveling, I didn’t have a midwife, doctor or any sort of support group at the time. I would never have dreamt of taking antidepressants (pregnant or not), although I know some women feel like they have no other choice. All I can say is that talking through how I felt very honestly with my husband (even if it scared him a little), finally getting home and having my family close, eating as well as possible, letting go of worries about not doing pregnancy “perfectly”, and getting plenty of unadulterated Vitamin D (here’s to naked sunbathing!) every clear day really helped. And this, like all other symptoms, improved with time; by the start of the second trimester I’d never been happier.
  • Stress, worries, anxiety: While I doubt there’s been a pregnant woman throughout history who hasn’t worried about something to do with her unborn baby, it’s worth remembering the flip side of all those scary statistics: if 15% of births end in miscarriage, that means 85% don’t. 98% of all children are born completely healthy, which is pretty amazing considering all the extenuating factors in the world (think, that figure includes drug addicts and alcoholics!). There are, naturally, degrees of health, and we all want to do all that we can to give our children the best start possible, but now is the time to do your research, tap in to your female intuition, and make choices accordingly. If you think that half of all pregnancies are unplanned, you have to think how many women have not been taking prenatal vitamins or eating well, and have been enjoying hot tubs, alcohol and all manner of other indulgences that they probably wouldn’t have partaken in if they had known they were carrying a little one. Trust me, that baby will suck every nutrient out of you to keep itself healthy and safe. If the pregnancy isn’t viable and ends, blood and pain will usually alert you. Otherwise, relax, do what you can, and don’t worry about the rest.
  • Falling Prey to Pregnancy Fearmongering: Oh, boy, the internet is a dangerous place. And not just the internet. Have you looked at the What to Expect books? Terrifying. Pregnancy is a little like bullying—once women have survived it, they seem to take a perverse pleasure in frightening other women about everything that can go wrong. From the list of things you shouldn’t do, shouldn’t eat, shouldn’t drink, shouldn’t say, to the endless articles detailing every possible unlikely thing that could happen to you and your baby, and the horror stories about pregnancy and birth, there’s so much negativity out there it’s a wonder any pregnant woman remains sane through it all. If you’ve been through this before, be honest, be nice, be considerate. Give advice to those who want it (or, you know, throw it out there into the ether for those looking for it), but please try not to make faces or indulge in horror stories when another woman tells you she’s planning on giving birth naturally or having twins or drinking raw milk. Pregnancy is hard enough without spending nine months frightened about everything. Let’s just support one another on this one.
  • Timing Worries: There is no “right” time to have a baby. It’s a major change no matter where you’re at in life. The kind of support you have around you makes a big difference. When I found out I was pregnant, we had no house or apartment, no savings, and no stable income (if someone claims that journalism is a viable means of living, don’t believe them). What we did have were two very supportive families and a really strong conviction that we could and would make it work. Due to timing, our situation was a little unusual—I moved back home while my husband was away for months at a time, traveling for work—but after hearing from so many women who had trouble conceiving or carrying a child to term later in life, I’m pretty grateful I got knocked up at 26.
  • Mood Swings: When my otherwise exceptionally calm and emotionally stable mother was pregnant, she smashed a ceramic salad bowl over my father’s head. Out of character as it was, she still remembers it as one of the most satisfying moments of her life. While I recommend curbing your more violent impulses, I can’t promise that you won’t have any. I threw my husband’s cell phone at his head when he snapped at me for not giving him a direction soon enough in the car. I cried about everything, good and bad. I had panic attacks so bad I couldn’t breathe, and moments of deep despair. Just take a deep breath, apologize if you were in the wrong, and remind those around you that you really love them and appreciate what they’re doing for you, whatever your feelings of the moment. Most importantly of all, look after yourself.
  • Forgetting Everything: Indeed, I forgot to put this one in at first. My brain went to mush basically from conception until week 13. Writing coherently was a serious challenge (if it’s important, proofread, and then have others proofread for you), I had to pause part way through most sentences to think about what I was saying, and I forgot to do every single thing I didn’t write down. Keep lists. Keep lots of lists.
  • Skin Problems: I had about a week of “glow” followed by two months of acne everywhere (honestly it hasn’t gone away yet), rashes, dry hair and cracked skin. Stretch marks, one of the things I worried about most pre-pregnancy, fell down pretty low on my list of concerns once morning sickness set in. That said, I liked dry brushing, drinking plenty of Great Lakes Collagen in tea, back massages from my husband, and natural body oil (I like Egyptian Magic cream) head to toe. These things seemed to help.
  • A Changing Body: I really and truly believed that pregnancy would bring with it a more aware, in-touch relationship with my body than I had ever experienced, that I would feel whole and feminine and beautiful. It did, eventually, but at first I felt like my body had been hijacked. It was changing so quickly I couldn’t recognize it. Nothing worked like it used to. Everything was getting bigger. I found it difficult not to be negative about how I looked, but things got better towards week 10. Meditation and light stretching helped, as did making myself lots of little meals, and being told by my husband how beautiful I was, and how much he loved my “baby bump”. Taking a picture every week helped me actually feel beautiful and more in touch with the changes.
  • Hair: Two kinds, but related: on your head, on your body. Some women get luscious locks on account of all those hormones that had me bent over a toilet most of the day. I, for one, got really oily roots and really dry ends. It didn’t help that I had to stop using the not-so-natural products that kept my hair in check (I did all natural anything and everything for five years – it just didn’t work). So lank hair on my head was one thing: dark, think hair all over my body quite another. I’m told it goes away, but have my doubts. A razor works in the mean time.
  • Constipation: Warm water with lemon. Every morning.
  • Having to Urinate Constantly: Yep, that’s normal, and there’s no getting around it. Whatever you do, don’t stop drinking water, and don’t stray too far from a bathroom.
  • Temperature: My body temperature went haywire – I was freezing all day long, and boiling by night. I found keeping an ice pack, rosewater or some sort of facial mist, and a handheld fan by the bed best for staving off the dreaded night sweats, and warm sun the best remedy for feeling profoundly cold.
  • Exercise Troubles: Some women exercise as usual during their first trimester; I found it almost impossible to move. I was hyper-conscious of my body, and felt really fragile and unable to move in the same way I usually did. I was also completely exhausted, and exercise zapped what little energy I had and left me totally wiped out for days to come. I walked and did a few squats or planks when I could, but mostly I slept. Towards week 10 I was able to walk a little more and do some (very light) yoga. I tried to focus on deep breathing throughout, but my lungs often felt a little constricted. If the nesting instinct hits and you have the energy, cleaning at least gets your blood flowing.
  • Sex: Some women will tell you pregnancy sex is the best they’ve ever had. I found it distressingly limiting. In the first trimester I was so completely wiped out and ill that sex was the furthest thing from my mind—except for sudden cravings. This kept everyone pretty satisfied until week 9, when I realized that my growing stomach changed everything. I couldn’t move like I used to. Being on my back was uncomfortable. His weight on my stomach was terrible. I couldn’t move my hips in any way that compressed my belly. We had to stop and I cried for two hours after because I was so sad it wasn’t working. They say that patience in trying new positions helps. If you’re like me, and ready to curse those chipper “pregnancy sex is the best ever” women, just remember – their best sex only lasts nine months. Unless you’re planning on having ten children, your best sex days are considerably more numerous. And the good news for those of you who love it: unless your doctor says otherwise, sex is totally safe throughout pregnancy.
  • When to Tell People: In spite of what others might tell you, this is a completely personal choice. My husband’s profession (wine journalist) made it literally impossible to hide my pregnancy from the moment we found out. I was also comfortable with the idea of telling people if something were to happen, which I know many women are not. I work freelance, so maternity leave didn’t factor in, but since I’m a travel writer, not being able to travel (I chose not to – just a risk I wasn’t willing to take, and a discomfort I wasn’t willing to endure) was quite a big deal. So, my husband and I told our immediate families right away; anyone we had dinner with right before they poured me a huge glass of Burgundy; our friends whenever we felt like it in the coming months (some immediately, some not until the end of the first trimester, many in-between), and everyone else after genetic tests and sonograms (we got our results back, and knew the baby’s sex, by week 12). To each their own. Don’t let people make you feel like you’ve taken a risk by telling people too soon, or that you haven’t told them soon enough. It is 100% your decision—do what feels right to you.

A few parting words on peculiar emotions:

Watching my baby kicking around during my first sonogram at 10 ½ weeks was one of the most astounding things I’ve ever seen. It didn’t leave me happy or sad so much as in shock—it shifted my perspective from “I’m pregnant” to “there’s actually an autonomous human being moving around inside me”. It honestly took a few days before that shock turned in to really profound happiness, and that happiness (I’m guessing not by coincidence) coincided with abating nausea and fatigue, and with finding out the sex of my baby, which really helped me connect to that little life and get excited for the future. Those first trimester hormones put me through the ringer, and it wasn’t until they abated that my normal emotions and reactions resumed (well, normalish). If you’re presently in the throes of first trimester woes, I really and truly feel for you. I know “it gets better” is scant comfort when you can hardly make it through the day, but the worst really will pass. Remember that however bad you’re feeling, you’re doing an incredible job, and you’ll be a fantastic mother.

Is there anything you’d like to add? Advice, symptoms, experiences, commiserations? Feel free to jump in below!

2 thoughts on “How to Survive the First Trimester of Pregnancy

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