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Morning Sickness: Causes and Coping

Unsettled Belly

I like to call weeks four through eight of my pregnancy the Saltine Days. That was when the nausea set in, big time. I felt like I was on the deck of a ship as it pitched in rough weather. And one of the few things that got me through that time was the trusty bag of crackers I toted -- and nibbled -- everywhere.

It turns out that I was lucky. My morning sickness -- a misnomer if ever there was one -- was restricted to those early weeks, then disappeared completely. Other pregnant women are not as fortunate. Just ask Amy Brayfield of Atlanta. "The first time I threw up, I didn't even know I was pregnant," she says. "I thought it was bad Thai food." Unfortunately, she spent the rest of her pregnancy -- morning, noon, and night -- heading for the bathroom. "I even got sick on the way to the hospital when I was in labor," she says.

So what causes these tummy troubles, and what can you do to get some relief? Here's everything you need to know about this rather unpleasant but usually short-lived part of pregnancy.

Little Fetus, Lots of Nausea

As any veteran will tell you, morning sickness bears a striking resemblance to a hangover -- your stomach is knotted with nausea, which may be accompanied by vomiting, headache, and fatigue. This whopper of a hangover plagues most sufferers during the first trimester and then tapers off.

But the malaise of morning sickness isn't an indication that something is out of whack; quite the opposite, in fact. Experts believe that it's actually a sign that your pregnancy is progressing normally. "We have seen higher rates of low birth weight babies and miscarriage in women who didn't have any morning sickness," says Diane Ashton, MD, associate medical director of the March of Dimes in White Plains, New York. The reason? The rapid rise in pregnancy hormones that spurs the nausea may also indicate normal, healthy development of the fetus and placenta. Even though 50 to 80 percent of women experience morning sickness, plenty sail through pregnancy without a hint of the queasies and still give birth to healthy babies.

This stationary seasickness may have other protective properties, too. Pregnancy hormones also heighten a woman's sense of smell, which may induce nausea. And a supersensitive sniffer may act as a woman's internal warning system, helping her avoid any foods that may harm the fetus during the critical first trimester. Research bears this out. In 2000, researchers at Cornell University examined thousands of pregnancies and determined that morning sickness peaks between weeks 6 and 18 of pregnancy -- which is the most crucial time for fetal organ development.

Quelling the Queasies

You can't predict whether or not you'll get morning sickness, nor can you cure it. But there are ways to ease your symptoms. Your first line of defense should be to tweak your diet. As a general rule, large, heavy, greasy, or spicy meals may exacerbate your symptoms, so try five to six small, light meals throughout the day, such as a bowl of cereal or yogurt and a banana. Eating mini meals also keeps you from getting too hungry, which makes the nausea worse. Though your instincts may tell you not to eat, nibbling on a few plain crackers can actually soothe nausea.

Staying well hydrated is also key. "Carry a bottle of water with you everywhere, and sip from it constantly," says Jon Matsunaga, MD, chair of obstetrics and gynecology at St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica, California. Keeping a steady supply of food and water in your stomach will help prevent a buildup of stomach acids, which can also make nausea worse.

As you may have already guessed, figuring out what you can tolerate is the tough part. While every woman's experience will be different, your best bet is to start by eating bland foods like crackers and toast. These and other simple carbohydrates are easiest to digest.

But if adjusting your diet doesn't help, you may want to take a look at your prenatal vitamin or any iron supplements you may be taking. For some women, iron is rough on an already-seasick stomach. Talk to your doctor about skipping supplements until you feel better. "It's more important to eat and drink than it is to take vitamins during pregnancy," says Dr. Matsunaga.

You can also try other remedies with your doctor's approval. "Unisom, the over-the-counter sleep aid, contains an antinausea ingredient and is safe and effective," says Dr. Matsunaga. Some pregnant women also find that ginger -- in the form of lollipops or tea -- works well on nausea. "But it's wise to be wary of taking anything, from herbal teas to pills, without consulting your physician first," says Dr. Ashton.

Even if most remedies fail, don't worry too much if you're unable to eat a completely balanced diet when you're suffering from morning sickness. In fact, says Dr. Ashton, "Taking in less during early pregnancy is just fine, and it won't compromise the growth of the placenta and the fetus. Your baby will get what she needs from the nutrients you take in." In the meantime, do the best you can. Believe it or not, soon morning sickness will be only a memory.

Denise Schipani lives in Queens, New York, and is the new mother of a baby boy.

Morning Sickness During Pregnancy: When to Worry
Morning Sickness During Pregnancy: When to Worry

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.