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Travel, sex, saunas, hair dye: what’s safe during pregnancy?

Keeping a growing baby safe and healthy throughout pregnancy is every expecting mother’s highest priority. But what does this mean in terms of keeping up with your usual routines and leisure pursuits? Can you travel? Is hair dye OK? What about exercise? Or sex?

The short answer is: yes, you can do all of these things during pregnancy. However, you may need to take some extra precautions or modify your usual behaviour. And unfortunately, yes, there are some activities it is best to avoid for the duration of your pregnancy.

Travel

Flying

While flying itself doesn’t have any effect on a pregnancy, most airlines will not let you fly if you are over 36 weeks pregnant. Some airlines restrict travel even earlier (e.g. from 28 weeks) and/or require signed medical clearance from a doctor. These restrictions are not based on any real medical concerns but are more about airlines wanting to avoid risk – no one wants a pregnant woman giving birth mid-flight!

Timing your travel

Fatigue and nausea during the first trimester can make travelling uncomfortable. In the third trimester, the extra weight you are carrying can make it physically harder to get around, particularly if you are also suffering from back or pelvic pain. Fatigue and shortness of breath can also be an issue in later pregnancy. As such, most women find the second trimester to be the most comfortable time to travel.

When timing your travel, it’s also important to note that you will require more frequent antenatal visits as your pregnancy progresses – monthly visits up to 28 weeks, then every 2 to 3 weeks until 36 weeks, with weekly visits thereafter. So, if possible, it’s best to avoid periods of extended travel during the last trimester.

If your obstetrician has deemed your pregnancy to be ‘high risk’, he/she may also want to see you more frequently throughout your entire pregnancy.

Long trips and deep vein thrombosis (DVT)

A DVT is when a blood clot forms in a deep vein, typically in your leg. Clots form much more easily when blood flow is slow, e.g. when you don’t move around very much like on a long-haul flight. The risk of clots is also 5–10 times higher during pregnancy due to hormonal changes – this is how your body safeguards itself from losing too much blood after birth.

While DVTs are uncommon, they can lead to life-threatening complications, so take these few simple steps during longer trips to help lower your risk:

  • Walk regularly (every 30 minutes if possible)
  • If you can’t walk around, stretch and exercise your legs regularly while sitting (most airlines provide instructions for leg and ankle exercises in the seat pocket)
  • Drink plenty of water
  • Avoid caffeine (as it dehydrates you).

If you have had a DVT in the past, have a multiple pregnancy, or have other risk factors, your doctor may also advise you to wear compression stockings or take certain medications during your trip.

Travel vaccines

Certain vaccines are recommended prior to travelling to some countries, including most developing nations, due to the increased risk of diseases such as typhoid. Unfortunately, most vaccines are harmful to unborn babies or haven’t been adequately tested for safety on pregnant women. Some vaccines, such as those for yellow fever and typhoid, may be given with caution after the first trimester.

Therefore, it is generally recommended that pregnant women delay any travel to developing nations until after their babies are born. If travel to high-risk countries during pregnancy can’t be avoided, it’s best to consult both your obstetrician and a specialist travel doctor to understand the full breadth of precautions you should take.

For specific advice about avoiding exposure to the Zika virus while travelling, read this article.

Hair dye, cosmetics and aesthetic treatments

Research has shown that hair dye is fine to use during pregnancy, although many women still fear that the chemicals in hair dye may be absorbed through their scalp, leading to developmental abnormalities in their baby. There is no scientific evidence to support this but if you remain concerned, many hairdressers now offer low-chemical dyes or henna alternatives.

Similarly, while you don’t have to stop using your usual make-up or skincare products during pregnancy, some women prefer to switch to toxin-free or natural alternatives. Skin sensitivity can worsen during pregnancy, in which case products specifically formulated for intolerant skin (fragrant-free, preservative-free) can be helpful.

Aesthetic techniques like laser hair removal and laser skin treatments should be avoided during pregnancy and breastfeeding, as should Botox and other injectables, as the risk to a developing baby is either unclear or not well-researched.

Exercise and other leisure activities

Regular exercise throughout pregnancy is highly recommended and you can find some useful tips here. Physical activity is associated with fewer complications during both pregnancy and birth, including a decreased risk of premature birth. Staying active can also help you sleep better, increase your energy levels, and reduce your likelihood of suffering from common pregnancy complaints like varicose veins and swollen feet and ankles.

However, it is important to take into account your pre-pregnancy fitness level. If you were already active prior to becoming pregnant, you can maintain your usual routine until it feels uncomfortable to do so. Most women find that they need to start making some modifications from around 4–5 months on, as the weight of their baby increases, their pelvic muscles start to relax, and shortness of breath kicks in.

If you were inactive prior to pregnancy, it’s a good idea to ease gently into any new exercise routine (after first checking with your GP or obstetrician), with the aim of being active for at least 30 minutes a day, four times a week.

It’s okay to feel hot, sweaty and puffed when you exercise – in fact, this should be your aim, especially during early pregnancy. A good gauge of intensity is that you should still be able to maintain a conversation.

While it is okay to exercise while pregnant, you may need to make some modifications depending on the type of exercise you enjoy doing:

  • After 16 weeks, exercising on your back (e.g. stomach crunches, sit-ups) is no longer recommended. The weight of the baby could press on a major blood vessel, reducing blood flow to your heart and your baby.
  • It is safest to avoid contact sports (e.g. football, hockey, martial arts) and activities with a risk of falling (e.g. skiing, climbing, horse-riding).
  • Scuba diving is not safe during pregnancy, as gas bubbles can cross the placenta and your baby has no protection against decompression sickness.
  • High-altitude training (over 2,500 metres) is not recommended, as it reduces the oxygen supply to you and your baby.
  • To avoid overheating, drink water regularly and avoid exercising in very hot temperatures (no hot yoga!).
  • If you go to an exercise class that’s not specifically for pregnant women, tell the instructor that you’re pregnant, so they can provide you with alternative exercises (e.g. doing crunches while lying on your side rather than on your back). If the instructor panics when you tell them you’re pregnant and/or has no experience with pregnant women, find another class.
  • If weight training, use an incline bench (rather than lifting weights on your back) after the first 12 weeks, swap to weights that feel light to moderate rather than heavy (try more repetitions with lighter weights instead), avoid using heavy bar bells behind your neck after 12 weeks (use dumbbells instead), and don’t hold your breath when lifting. As your pregnancy progresses, it’s also a good idea to avoid deadlifts, clean and press, and upright rows, as it will be hard to maintain correct technique and stop the bar from hitting your bump as the weight and size of your baby increases.
  • If you are suffering from pelvic girdle pain, see this article (insert link to previous blog) for helpful tips and specific moves to avoid, e.g. standing on one leg.
  • If you have any unusual pains while exercising, stop and seek advice from a healthcare professional immediately.

Take a look here for further tips on exercise during pregnancy.

Swimming, spas, baths and saunas

Exposure to extreme or constant heat during pregnancy – even for a short amount of time (e.g. 10 minutes) – can harm your baby’s development and increase the risk of miscarriage. This is particularly true during the first trimester. Dehydration, as a result of heat exposure, can also lower your blood pressure, making you feel unwell or light-headed. For these reasons, it is recommended that pregnant women avoid hot baths, spas and saunas throughout their entire pregnancy.

Swimming on the other hand is a particularly gentle form of exercise, so it is ideal for pregnant women. And unlike some other forms of exercise, there’s no risk of overheating! Just make sure that the pool water is no warmer than 32 degrees (note: while this is usually not an issue in Australia, it’s a good idea to check pool temperatures when travelling abroad). It is also best to stick to pools you know are properly chlorinated or beaches and to avoid smaller, stagnant bodies of water that may carry water-borne illnesses (e.g. dams, rivers).

Sex, drugs and alcohol

Be reassured that sex will not harm your developing baby. It is fine to remain sexually active throughout all stages of your pregnancy. Sex does not cause miscarriage and will not make you go into early labour. Of course, you should continue to protect yourself against sexually transmitted diseases.

While it may seem okay to have a glass of wine now and again, there is actually no safe level of drinking during pregnancy. It is best to abstain from alcohol altogether during pregnancy. Similarly, all illicit drugs should be avoided, as it puts your baby at risk of developmental abnormalities and drug dependency.

When it comes to the use of specific over-the-counter and prescription drugs, as well as natural medicines, it is best to ask your GP, pharmacist or obstetrician for advice. The most common drug I am asked about is paracetamol, which is safe for your growing baby, as long as it is taken as directed. It should be your first port-of-call for pain relief during pregnancy.

Cheese, sashimi and other gourmet foods

As a general rule, it’s recommended that you avoid raw, unpasteurised or pre-prepared foods (like raw fish, soft cheeses and deli foods) while you’re pregnant. These types of foods can carry potentially harmful bacteria, such as listeria and salmonella, which can cause premature labour, stillbirth or miscarriage.

For more detailed guidance on food safety during pregnancy, download my quick and convenient food safety guide, which you can print out and refer to at home and on the go.

High-risk pregnancies

If your obstetrician has deemed your pregnancy to be high-risk, some additional precautions or restrictions may be necessary. Your obstetrician can advise you accordingly.

Last word: if you’re ever unsure, check with your obstetrician

Being pregnant doesn’t mean you can no longer enjoy the good things in life – but you may need to take a few extra precautions or make some modifications to your usual routines and habits. If you are finding it difficult to navigate the world of what is and isn’t baby-friendly, don’t hesitate to ask questions (no matter how silly you think they sound) during your next antenatal appointment. Between appointments, you are always welcome to call my rooms for advice on (03) 9418 8299.

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