We’ve Come a Long Way, Baby!
In many ways, pregnancy today is much the same as it’s always been. Bellies still get bigger, morning sickness is pretty much expected, and after nine months, a baby is welcomed into the family. But, in so many other ways, being pregnant today is nothing like it was 40 or 50 years ago.
“Technology, nutrition, and just the pace of life today has brought many changes to pregnancy, delivery and recovery,” said Ben Darby, MD, ob/gyn with OBG-1 of West Calcasieu Cameron Hospital. “In the 35 years that I’ve delivered babies, it’s amazing how things have changed. We can visualize the health of the baby in so much more detail now and we have a better understanding of conditions that might affect the health of the mother so we can treat them more effectively. All in all, now is a great time to have a baby.”
As technology and knowledge of the body has grown, things that were never considered a generation ago are now commonplace. The biology is pretty much the same, but today we know so much more about our unborn babies.
Then: Most women made an appointment with their doctor after two missed periods, meaning they were about two months along before knowing for sure. It didn’t matter much, though, because their doctor would let them know they’d have a bundle of joy in about seven months and simply advise them to get plenty of rest.
Today: With a trip to any dollar store and a home pregnancy test, a woman can find out if she’s pregnant as early as two or three weeks into the pregnancy. Some women are so in tune with their bodies that they notice subtle signs right away, such as feeling more tired than normal, slight cramping, frequent urination, mood swings, breast tenderness, and nausea.
“Not all women experience these symptoms, but it’s not uncommon for a woman to have a strong suspicion that she’s pregnant within a couple of weeks,” said Dr. Darby. Most home pregnancy tests are so accurate, doctors usually don’t see a newly pregnant woman until eight to ten weeks along.
Technology and Testing
Then: There was no option to learn if the baby was a boy or a girl or if it was healthy. Parents simply waited the nine months and found out upon delivery. Ultrasound technology wasn’t mainstream until late 1980’s, especially for uneventful pregnancies.
“A century ago, the baby was monitored by a simple stethoscope. In the 1960s, the electric fetal monitor was developed to give physicians a paper record of the baby’s heartbeat,” said Dr. Darby. “Until the 1960s and 70s, doctors didn’t have a lot of testing equipment available. It’s amazing how far technology has advanced when you consider all of the information we’re able to obtain these days.”
Today: Most parents today find out their baby’s gender by mid-pregnancy; technology can even show the baby waving, kicking and sucking its thumb. By the time the baby arrives, the nursery is prepared with pink or blue accessories, the name is chosen, and parents are looking forward to welcoming their new baby girl or boy.
Even if the parents choose not to know the gender, their doctor will likely order an ultrasound to check the health of the baby and verify the due date. “The technician looks for specific signs which could indicate a chromosomal disorder or heart defect,” said Dr. Darby. “The baby’s heart rate is checked, as is the health of the placenta, uterus, cervix, and ovaries.”
In addition to an ultrasound, other diagnostic tests are available while pregnant. With amniocentesis, it’s now possible to identify more problems and risks earlier in the pregnancy, including Down Syndrome and cystic fibrosis. A maternal blood screen is standard practice; it measures the levels of two proteins. If the levels are abnormally high, it could indicate a chromosomal disorder in the baby.
“With technology comes the ethical decision of whether or not parents want to know if there is a problem,” said Dr. Darby. “This knowledge can be helpful for families to prepare for a child with a disability.”
Eating for Two
Then: Doctors would recommend a restricted diet during pregnancy, thinking it would ease labor and delivery if the baby were smaller. Of course, we now know that a smaller baby doesn’t always equal a healthy baby.
Back in the 1930s, excessive weight gain during pregnancy was seen as a possible sign of pre-eclampsia, a serious spike in the mother’s blood pressure. In an effort to prevent this, many women were advised to gain no more than 15 pounds total during the pregnancy.
Today: Researchers and physicians now know that low birth weight can cause concerns and developmental problems. Most mothers aim to gain between 25 – 35 pounds during pregnancy.
Nutritional quality is scrutinized more today than in years past. Choosing fresh and unprocessed foods is important, since we know that some processing procedures rob foods of some nutritional value.
“Healthy babies start with healthy mothers,” said Dr. Darby. “When a mother begins her pregnancy at a good weight, with healthy habits of eating a wide variety of foods and getting regular exercise, the baby benefits.”
Vitamins have also come to the forefront. We know now that folic acid early during a pregnancy can help prevent many birth defects. It plays an important role in the production of red blood cells and helps the development of the baby’s brain and spinal cord.
“Birth defects usually occur at the beginning of the pregnancy, as early as three or four weeks. We recommend beginning folic acid supplements as soon as the pregnancy is confirmed. Ideally, if a woman is considering getting pregnant, we’d like her to begin taking folic acid immediately,” said Dr. Darby.
Then: Strong anesthesia was used to virtually knock out the mother, while dad waited in the “stork room” to await the baby’s arrival. Because the mother was heavily sedated, she couldn’t fully participate in the delivery and push in the final stage of labor, requiring most physicians to use forceps to pull the baby out of the birth canal. As a result of the heavy dose of medicine, babies were often born heavily medicated, sleepy and some had difficulty breathing.
Mothers often stayed in the hospital for a week or longer, with several days going by before they were allowed out of bed. Upon discharge, they continued on bed rest at home for several weeks.
Today: Women take a leading role in planning their labor and delivery. Dads are expected to be in the delivery room and many participate in the delivery by cutting the umbilical cord.
Pain-reducing medications are now widely used, or some women opt for an epidural for a pain-free delivery. Natural delivery is also a popular option, employing breathing techniques. “Pain management advancements are now safer and less disruptive to the process of labor than earlier methods were, although the risks of each method should be discussed,” Dr. Darby said.
We know now that getting out of bed in a reasonable amount of time after the delivery will help the mother’s body to heal. Women are often encouraged to walk a few steps within hours after delivery to keep the muscles loosened, and then continue to get up and walk short distances every few hours. If mother and baby are healthy and doing well, discharge from the hospital usually occurs between 24 to 48 hours after delivery, so they can continue to recover in the comfort of their home.
Pregnancies and deliveries today are the safest they’ve ever been. Thanks to increased knowledge along with advanced technology, doctors are even able to successfully treat some conditions in babies while they’re still in the womb. Overall, we know more than ever about how to have healthy babies, safe pregnancies and (relatively) easy deliveries.