Most pregnancies go on without any problems. However, some women will experience complications that can involve the mother's health, the baby's health, or both. The complications may be caused by diseases or conditions the mother had before she became pregnant, or they can come about during the pregnancy. Some complications occur at the end of a pregnancy, i.e. during delivery of the baby.
Even with complications, early detection and prenatal care can reduce any further risk to you and your baby.
Some of the most common complications of pregnancy include:
- high blood pressure
- gestational diabetes
- pre-term labor
- loss of pregnancy (miscarriage)
If you already have a chronic condition or illness, be sure to talk to your doctor about how to minimize any complications before you get pregnant. If you are already pregnant, your doctor may need to monitor your pregnancy.
Some examples of common diseases and conditions that can cause complications during your pregnancy include:
- high blood pressure
- sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV
- kidney problems
Other factors that may put you at a higher risk for complications include:
- pregnancy at age 35 or older
- pregnancy at a very young age
- eating disorders like anorexia
- smoking cigarettes
- using illegal drugs
- drinking alcohol
- a history of pregnancy loss or pre-term birth
- carrying multiples (twins, triplets, etc.)
The normal symptoms of pregnancy and the symptoms of complications are sometimes hard to distinguish. Although many problems are mild and do not progress, you should always contact your doctor if you have any concerns during your pregnancy. Most pregnancy complications are manageable with prompt treatment.
The following sections describe the most common maternal health complications a woman may experience during her pregnancy.
Hypertension (High Blood Pressure)
High blood pressure occurs when the arteries that carry blood from the heart to the organs and the placenta are narrowed. High blood pressure is associated with a higher risk of many other complications, like preeclampsia. It also puts the woman at a higher risk of having a baby well before her due date (preterm delivery) and having an infant that is very small. It’s important to control your blood pressure with medications during pregnancy.
Gestational diabetes occurs when your body cannot process sugars effectively. This leads to higher-than-normal levels of sugar in the blood stream. Some women will need to modify their meal plan to help control blood sugar levels. Others may need to take insulin to keep their blood sugar levels in control. Gestational diabetes usually resolves after pregnancy.
Preeclampsia is also called toxemia. It occurs after the first 20 weeks of a pregnancy and causes high blood pressure and problems with a woman’s kidneys. The only cure for preeclampsia is delivering the baby early. A doctor may induce labor if the woman is 37 to 40 weeks pregnant. If it’s too early to deliver the baby, a doctor will have to monitor the mother and baby very closely. The doctor may prescribe medications or require bed rest at home or in the hospital for the rest of the pregnancy term.
Preterm labor is when a woman goes into labor before week 37 of her pregnancy. This is before the baby’s organs, such as the lungs and the brain, have finished developing. Medications can be used to stop labor. Bed rest is usually advised to keep the baby from being born too early.
A miscarriage is the loss of pregnancy during the first 20 weeks. According to the American Pregnancy Association, up to 20 percent of pregnancies will end in a miscarriage. Sometimes this happens before a woman even knows that she is pregnant. In most cases, miscarriage cannot be prevented.
Loss of a pregnancy after week 20 is called a stillbirth. Many times the cause for pregnancy loss at this time is not known. However issues that have been found to cause stillbirths include:
- problems with the placenta
- chronic health issues of the mother
- other conditions
Anemia means that you have a lower than normal number of red blood cells in your body. Women with anemia may feel more tired and weak than usual and may have pale skin. Anemia has many causes and your doctor will need to treat the underlying cause of the anemia. Taking supplements of iron and folic acid during your pregnancy may help since most cases of anemia are caused by a deficiency or iron.
A variety of bacterial, viral, and parasitic infections may complicate a pregnancy. Infections can be harmful to both the mother and the baby so it’s important to seek treatment right away. Some examples include:
- urinary tract infection
- bacterial vaginosis
- group B strep
- hepatitis B virus (can be passed to a baby during birth)
- taxoplasmosis (an infection caused by a parasite, which is found in cat feces, soil, and raw meat)
- yeast infection
Some infections can be prevented by washing your hands often. Others, such as hepatitis B virus and influenza, can be prevented by vaccination.
Complications can also occur during labor and delivery. Your doctor will have to make a decision on how to proceed with delivery if there is a problem.
A baby is considered in a breech position when its feet are positioned to be delivered before its head. According to the American Pregnancy Association, this occurs in about 4 percent of full-term births.
Most babies born in this position are completely healthy. You doctor will not want to attempt a vaginal birth if the baby shows signs of distress or is too big to pass safely through the birth canal. If a doctor finds out that your baby is in the breech position a few weeks before delivery, they might try to change the position of the baby. If the baby is still in the breech position when labor starts, most doctors recommend a cesarean delivery (C-section).
A placenta previa means that the placenta is covering the cervix. Doctors will usually perform a C-section if this is the case.
Low Birth Weight
A low birth weight is usually caused by poor nutrition or the use of cigarettes, alcohol, or drugs during a pregnancy. Babies who are born at a low birth weight have a higher risk of:
- respiratory infections
- learning disabilities
- heart infections
The baby may need to stay in the hospital for a few months after birth.
If you are pregnant, don’t hesitate to call your doctor if there are any signs of a problem. Call your doctor right away if you experience any of the following:
- bleeding from the vagina
- sudden swelling in the hands or face
- pain in the abdomen
- severe headaches
- persistent vomiting
- blurred vision
- if you think your baby has suddenly began moving less often than usual during the third trimester
Not all complications can be prevented. The following steps may help prevent a high-risk pregnancy or promote a healthy pregnancy overall:
- Consult with a doctor before you become pregnant. If you are thinking of becoming pregnant, consulting a doctor beforehand can help you prepare. For example, if you already have a pre-existing medical condition, a doctor may recommend adjusting your treatment in order to prepare for your pregnancy.
- Eat a healthy diet with lots of fruits, vegetables, lean protein, and fiber.
- Take prenatal vitamins daily.
- Gain weight wisely. In general, a total of 25 to 35 pounds is recommended for women who were at a healthy weight before pregnancy, according to the Mayo Clinic.
- Attend all routine prenatal visits, including those with a specialist if one is recommended.
- Quit smoking.
- Avoid alcohol and illegal drugs.
- Find out if the medications you are already taking are okay to continue taking or if you should stop taking them.
- Reduce anxiety. Listening to music and doing yoga are two ways to reduce your stress levels.