Swelling during pregnancy: What’s normal and what’s not?

Dr Christine Catling
Dr Christine Catling
Dr Christine Catling, a midwife for over 25 years, is the Director of Midwifery Studies at UTS. She believes research, innovation and good quality midwifery are pivotal to the well-being of mothers and young families. Christine has extensive experience in antenatal education, policy development and research, and has published on workforce issues, homebirth, vaginal birth...
Updated on Jun 14, 2024 · 3 mins read

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Swelling (or oedema) is another one of those not-so-nice side effects of pregnancy that affects most women in some way. It can affect all women in different ways, from simply noticing your shoes are a little more snug than usual, to severe swelling and fluid retention.

Why do we experience swelling in pregnancy?

When you fall pregnant your body begins producing more blood to accommodate for your new houseguest and to help them grow and develop. Then as the pregnancy progresses and the baby grows and starts taking up more room, it can block the flow of blood or circulation, often to extremities such as hands (especially fingers), feet, ankles and face, making them swell.

This then creates pressure and forces extra fluid to build up, which would usually be absorbed by your body but when you’re pregnant you retain it. Your hormones are also relaxing everything in preparation for birth and this includes veins, which makes them have to work harder to function.

When does it usually occur?

Swelling tends to get worse as the day goes on, so you might find you wake up normal but then have swollen hands or feet by the afternoon/evening largely thanks to gravity. You may notice it also gets worse as the pregnancy progresses, usually peaking in the third trimester. Warmer weather and humidity can also make swelling worse.

How to prevent/manage swelling:

  • Get plenty of rest – and put your feet up wherever possible (even during the day, elevating them under your desk can help)
  • Keep drinking water, even though you think the excess fluid is contributing to the swelling you still need plenty of hydration
  • Avoid too much sodium and caffeine in your diet
  • Avoid standing for long periods of time
  • Wear compression tights or socks
  • Exercise regularly – walking or swimming are great for getting the body moving and that blood flowing
  • Massage – either book in for a professional pregnancy massage or get your partner to rub your feet
  • Wear comfortable shoes – ditch the high heels and even enclosed/strappy ones too where possible, opt for comfort and support
  • Sleep on your left-hand side (also when you’re lying on the couch) so as not to place added pressure on blood vessels and veins that carry blood around the body
  • Keep cool in the hot/humid weather

When should I be concerned?

While swelling in pregnancy is very common and often without cause for alarm, there can be cases where it is a sign of something more serious such as pre-eclampsia so if it is concerning you, always check with your midwife or doctor.

Some signs to look out for include:

  • Waking up first thing in the morning with swelling
  • Swelling is becoming increasingly worse
  • Swelling is severe and/or painful
  • Swelling is worse in one leg than the other

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