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Breathlessness During Pregnancy

  • Nancy Montgomery
  • Posted March 11, 2013

As the tiny individual inside you grows, your body's organs are going to find the neighborhood increasingly more crowded. Your lungs and diaphragm will need to make room for this new resident, and as a result, you may feel a little out of breath -- usually starting in your second trimester. This breathless feeling will increase until your baby drops lower into your pelvis a few weeks before birth. Some women naturally carry their babies low in the first place and may not experience this breathlessness.

Pregnancy hormones can play a role, too, causing an increased blood volume in your body to help nourish your baby. The increase in blood flow can make your nasal passages more congested, leaving you with a stuffy nose.

How can I be sure that my baby is getting enough oxygen?

Once again, special pregnancy hormones are on the job. They help your lungs work more efficiently so they can pump greater volumes of air in and out, and prompt you to take deeper breaths. As a result, you may feel winded without really exerting yourself. This is normal, so don't be alarmed. It's just your body doing its job of keeping you and your baby well supplied with oxygen.

What can I do to breathe more easily?

Unless your doctor advises against it, try to get some kind of low-impact or no-impact aerobic exercise in each day. This could be something as simple as taking a brisk walk. Aerobic exercise keeps your lungs and heart in good condition and can help them run more smoothly. However, if you're not used to exercising, don't go racing around the block your first time out. Be sure to get your doctor's ok, and then start slowly. If you feel uncomfortable, stop. Any time you're exercising and feel out of breath, slow down or stop -- you may be working too hard.

Here are some other things you can do if you start feeling short of breath:

  • When you sit, don't slump. Keep your chest up and your shoulders back. This will give your lungs more room to expand. If you still feel short of breath, stand up. Standing can relieve some of the pressure on your diaphragm and lungs.
  • At night, try using an extra pillow to raise your head a little higher. If you're really uncomfortable, you can even try sleeping propped up in a half-sitting position.
  • Once you get to the halfway point of your pregnancy, it's a good idea to try to sleep mostly on your left side. It will make breathing easier, and it also relieves pressure on the major blood vessels going to your baby.
  • Take slow, deep, relaxed breaths. (This is good practice for the type of breathing you'll probably be doing in the delivery room.)
  • Here's a good exercise to get your body well-oxygenated. Stand up; inhale as you raise your arms up and out to the sides, bringing your head up at the same time. Exhale slowly as you lower your arms and head. Focus on expanding your rib cage -- rather than your stomach -- as you inhale.
  • And here's a tip from Vicki Iovine, mother of four and author of The Girlfriends' Guide to Pregnancy: She says that when she felt out of breath, it helped to get down on her hands and knees so that gravity pulled the baby toward the floor. According to Iovine, the relief this position offers is so great that you might be tempted to crawl your way through the rest of your pregnancy.

When to call a doctor

It's not unusual to feel out of breath when you're pregnant. But if you suddenly have trouble breathing and feel pain in your chest, call your doctor immediately or go to the emergency room. You might have a blood clot in the lungs or another serious problem. If you have a congenital heart problem, you should also be aware that shortness of breath could be a warning sign.

You should also call your doctor or go to the emergency room if you experience any of the following:

  • Sudden, severe shortness of breath along with chest pain, rapid breathing, or a racing pulse
  • Severe chest pain when you take a deep breath
  • Blue fingertips and lips

Special cautions for moms-to-be with asthma

If you have asthma, go over emergency procedures with your doctor early in your pregnancy. Your doctor will help you determine what asthma medications you should take and when you should take them. Being prepared ahead of time will let you take care of asthma flare-ups quickly so that both you and your baby will get the oxygen you need. Flare-ups may be more common in the third trimester when the baby is putting the most pressure on your lungs, so be sure to have your action plan down.

Even if you have asthma, you may not find breathlessness a problem during pregnancy. According to the Canadian Lung Association, about one third of women who have asthma find that their symptoms actually improve when they're pregnant. Hopefully, you'll be one of those lucky ones, but you should still be prepared to deal with a flare-up.

Finally, all women who are going to be pregnant during the flu season, including women with asthma, should get a flu shot, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, the nasal spray flu vaccine is not recommended for pregnant women.

References

What to Expect When You're Expecting. Arlene Eisenberg, Heidi E. Murkoff, Sandee E. Hathaway, B.S.N. Workman Publishing.

The Pregnancy Book. William Sears, MD, Martha Sears, RN. Little Brown and Co.

Edwards, N. et al. Sleep disordered breathing and pregnancy. Thorax 2002;57:555-558.

March of Dimes. Exercise. http://www.marchofdimes.com/pnhec/159_515.asp

The National Women's Health Information Center. The 2nd Trimester of Pregnancy. http://www.4woman.gov/Pregnancy/second.htm#3

The Girlfriends' Guide to Pregnancy. Vicki Iovine. Pocket Books.

Bloomsbury Research Centre. Vicki Iovine. http://www.bloomsbury.com/authors/microsite

Colman, J.W. et al. Cardiovascular problems and pregnancy: An approach to management. Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine. Volume 71. Number 12. December 2004.

Canadian Lung Association. Asthma and Pregnancy. http://www.lung.ca/asthma/pregnancy/

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Key Facts About Flu Vaccine. http://www.cdc.gov/flu/protect/keyfacts.htm

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