Take a Breather – Why Pregnant Women Are Often Breathless

By Dorian Colson |
|5 min read

One of the most common issues that expectant mothers experience is shortness of breath during pregnancy. While this happens most often in the third trimester, it can occur at any time during the pregnancy. While uncomfortable, it is not in itself something to cause any concern. Despite what it might feel like, shortness of breath does not mean that either mother or baby is receiving insufficient oxygen. Like many conditions during pregnancy, this annoying but relatively minor complaint is connected to an increase in pregnancy hormones, particularly progesterone. Over the course of the pregnancy, the woman's body needs to adapt to the differing needs of the fetus as it grows, causing incidents of shortness of breath during the later stages of pregnancy. In most cases, this condition disappears either in the last few weeks of pregnancy or shortly after birth.

What Can Cause Breathlessness During Pregnancy?

Shortness of breath in pregnancy can be both a normal symptom of pregnancy itself and a symptom of certain breath-related problems.

1. Why Pregnancy Can Cause Breathlessness

  • First trimester: For the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, the brain is increasingly stimulated by pregnancy hormones. Parts of the body, including the capillaries in the lungs, are changing, and the brain is telling parts of the body that more oxygen is needed. This leads to expectant mothers finding they need to breathe both more frequently and deeper to keep up. Women who are unfit, overweight, or who are carrying twins or multiples are especially likely to notice a change in their breathing patterns.

  • Second trimester: As the pregnancy advances, the body is working harder to provide for the fetus. However, shortness of breath during pregnancy does not mean that the mother is receiving less oxygen than she needs, nor that the fetus is at risk. Rather, it just means that the body is changing shape. The ribcage widens, meaning that the lungs have a greater capacity, and it takes more breathing to fill them.

  • Third trimester: In the final stages, the uterus has grown to such an extent that it is putting pressure on the diaphragm. The lungs are being slightly compressed. They are no longer able to expand as previous when breathing. However, actual patterns of breathing don't tend to change. The problem starts to ease when the baby's head engages, as this reduces the pressure on the diaphragm.

2. Other Breathing-related Problems

While shortness of breath during pregnancy is generally not dangerous, there are some risky conditions for which breathlessness is a symptom, and which must be checked out by a doctor.

  • Asthma: The most common of these is asthma. This is when the airways to the lungs narrow, making it hard to breathe. Generally, the airways require medication to open (usually by way of an inhaler). There is no evidence that this medication is harmful to the baby, however, any increase in the intensity of an asthma attack should always be checked out by a doctor.

  • Anemia: Anemia occurs when there is insufficient hemoglobin in the blood, leading to poor circulation and a lack of oxygen moving around the body. Because the amount of blood in a woman's body increases during pregnancy, the risk of anemia also increases, because the hemoglobin levels are less concentrated. This, in turn, can lead to breathlessness and dizziness. Medical intervention to treat the anemia is strongly recommended.

Shortness of breath during pregnancy could also indicate that there is a problem with the heart or lungs which must be addressed urgently. Rapid breathing, chest pain, and increased heart rate could indicate that the lungs are blocked by a blood clot (pulmonary embolism). Dizziness and difficulty breathing could also indicate that the mother is suffering from pre-eclampsia. This can cause liver or kidney damage to the mother, and lead to full eclampsia, which is potentially fatal.

Coping with Breathlessness During Pregnancy

While the average pregnant woman can expect episodes of shortness of breath, there are ways to alleviate the problem. Smoking? never recommended at the best of times, is particularly not recommended during pregnancy as this will only worsen the shortness of breath. Being a healthy weight before and during pregnancy can also help to ease breathing problems.

Other recommendations include:

  • Moderate exercise: Being sedentary during pregnancy won't stop the feelings of breathlessness. On the contrary, staying active, even when the mother's pulse and breathing rate increases, will actually help ease breathing issues. A low-impact regime such as yoga, which works on breathing, balance, strengthening and stretching, is a good way to stay in shape. Other exercises such as swimming and walking are also safe to continue.

  • Good posture: As mentioned before, the diaphragm is constricted causing shortness of breath third-trimester problems. During this time, it is best to try and maintain good posture to give the lungs as much room to expand as possible. When sitting, use a support for the back and sit as straight as possible. When standing or walking, try to hold the shoulders back and keep the chest up.

  • Staying comfortable when lying down: Use extra pillows or cushions as back support. As with posture, staying slightly elevated during sleep or when lying down allows the lungs the room they need to expand. The best sleeping position during pregnancy is on the side.

  • Relaxing: As has been mentioned, experiencing breathlessness during pregnancy is extremely common. In most cases, it does no harm to either the mother or the baby, so unless there are additional health concerns (such as those mentioned above), a bit of breathlessness is nothing to worry about. Moving rapidly, especially later in pregnancy, is harder for most women, so unless absolutely necessary, expectant mothers should take things easier.

Pregnancy-related breathlessness is common, and generally not life-threatening. It is possible to alleviate, but not eliminate fully, any breathing problems the expectant mother may have. However, as with any pregnancy-related worries, she should consult her doctor if she has concerns, or her breathing issues are especially extreme.



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