‘Morning sickness’ in pregnancy needs a new name, researchers argue

  • ‘Morning sickness’ is common in pregnancy, but isn’t limited to the early hours of the day
  • Researchers have recently argued that the term needs to be changed
  • This is because women may feel something is wrong if they experience these symptoms later in the day

Many women sail through pregnancy with minimal setbacks – while many mothers-to-be are prone to symptoms like "morning sickness". And one thing these women know very well, is that the dreaded bouts of nausea and vomiting can arrive at any time of the day or night.

This is why researchers from the University of Warwick have argued in a recent study that the term "morning sickness" is misleading and should instead be described as "nausea and sickness in pregnancy". Their study was published in the British Journal of General Practice

256 pregnant women kept a diary

The team of five researchers used the data from 256 pregnant women who were asked to diarise their symptoms on a daily basis during their first seven weeks of pregnancy (from the time they discovered they were pregnant).

The women faithfully recorded their every experience of nausea and vomiting, which the researchers then used to investigate the likelihood of these experiences according to the time of day, divided into weeks following their last ovulation.

According to the results, vomiting was most common between 7am and 1pm, whereas nausea was highly likely throughout the entire day, and not just the morning. Many of the participants reported vomiting into the evening as well. In those who experienced both nausea and vomiting, the most common period was between 9am and 10am. 

The later the week, the higher the chances of nausea and vomiting

The team also compared symptoms across the first seven weeks of each woman’s pregnancy, and found that the later in the pregnancy the week, the higher the chances of symptoms. Feeling nauseous was found to be most common in weeks five, six and seven, and vomiting in week seven. The team didn’t examine symptoms past the first seven weeks of the pregnancies.

Why researchers are calling for a name change

This study is the first of its kind that looked at the likelihood of these symptoms occurring at different times of the day. Leading author of the study, Professor Roger Gadsby of Warwick Medical School, said: "Morning sickness is widely used by the general public, media and even healthcare professionals, but it doesn't give an accurate description of the condition,” and explained why this is problematic:

"If a pregnant woman experiences sickness in the afternoon, she may feel that this is unusual and wrong, or, if she experiences no vomiting but feels nauseous all day, she might think she is not covered by the term 'morning sickness'. And those women who experience severe symptoms feel it trivialises the condition.”

The researchers also said, in a news release by the university, that nausea and vomiting in pregnancy (NVP) can have a significant negative impact on the lives of women and may sometimes cause depression or the inability to look after their family, and even loss of time from paid work. Very severe NVP, called hyperemesis gravidarm (HG), they said, is the commonest cause of admission to hospital in the first trimester of pregnancy.

The study authors concluded: "The continued use of the term 'morning sickness' could imply that symptoms only rarely occur in the afternoon and evening so that sufferers will have significant parts of the day symptom-free.

"This study shows that this is an incorrect assumption and that symptoms, particularly nausea, can occur at any time of the day."

How to ease symptoms

While it is not entirely known why women experience these symptoms to different degrees, and why some don’t experience any symptoms at all, the good news is that it’s a normal part of pregnancy and doesn’t affect the general health of a woman and her unborn baby in any way, and that it usually improves as the pregnancy progresses. 

That said, there’s no denying that these experiences can be very unpleasant, but there are several ways you can try to ease your symptoms, including these tips from a previous Health24 article:

  • Try to eat as well as you can under the circumstances, but eat smaller meals as often as you can.
  • Drink plenty of water, especially if you are losing fluid through vomiting.
  • Avoid trigger foods (and drinks) that are very spicy, fatty and sour.
  • Get plenty of rest as tiredness can lead to nausea.
  • If possible, ask your partner or someone else to get you a dry biscuit or a slice of toast while you are still on your back in bed, and eat it before you get up.

Bear in mind that nausea and vomiting during pregnancy cover a whole spectrum, ranging from being mildly inconvenient to requiring treatment in hospital. If your symptoms are causing you to feel unwell or you’re unable to keep your fluids down, you should contact your doctor immediately. 

READ | Kate's struggle with extreme morning sickness

READ | Maternal transmission of Covid-19 to baby during pregnancy uncommon

READ | A new embryonic model sheds light on never-before-seen stages of human development

Image: Fallon Michael on Unsplash

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