Q&A Thursday: Health Effects of Many Pregnancies
Here's a question for you and your friends who also have big families: Have you suffered any long-term/permanent physical problems because of so many pregnancies?I myself have been very blessed with healthy pregnancies and if I were to answer this on my own, I'd probably say something like this:
Nope! Not unless you count a stomach full of stretch marks and the extra weight I've got hanging around. The stretch marks are definitely tied to the number of pregnancies, but that extra weight would probably have accumulated anyway because I like to eat.But I was grateful to receive this question because I was curious what my friends' experiences have been with their multitude of pregnancies.
First, I should post a disclaimer. There are health problems that prevent women from conceiving and carrying a child to term. By virtue of the fact that all the women in my group have six or more children, we have largely avoided these problems. The gals who helped me answer this question are a unique group who have been able to have lots of children. That's not always the case with everyone, and we all want to be careful to note that just because we've been blessed to avoid any permanent health problems does not mean that will be true for all women.
In the course of our discussion the following points were brought up:
1. Our society views pregnancy as a medical condition or something that takes away from good health rather than as a natural, normal part of life. Hence, contraception is considered preventative care. All you have to do is read the comments on any newspaper article about Michelle Duggar to get a sometimes vulgar taste of this view. Since there are fewer and fewer women having lots of children -- .5 percent of women had seven or more children according to the last census -- multiple pregnancies are seen as unusual and scary. My friend Amy had this to say to counter this perspective: "One thing that annoys me, though, is the way society believes that bodies aren't made to have babies (or at least more than a couple). For some reason, exercising your muscles by using them makes them stronger, but exercising your fertility makes you 'weaker?' This hasn't been my experience at all. "
2. There are many positive health benefits to multiple children. I was surprised as I did research just how many documented, scientific benefits there are to having more children:
- More children born means less breast cancer. Studies have shown that each birth to a woman reduces that woman's chance of developing breast cancer by seven percent. In fact, if women in the developed world had as many children as those in the developing world, the breast cancer rate would be cut in half. (source)
- Women with more children live longer. A study done in Australia showed that "women with six or more children were about 40 per cent less likely to die during the 16-year follow-up than women with no children" It also showed that the more children a woman had, the less likely she was to die. "Compared with women who had no children, those with two had a 17 per cent decreased risk of death. For women with three children there was a 20 per cent decreased risk, and this pattern largely continued with additional children." (source)
- Research shows that fetal cells from each child remain in the mother and may spur healing. It's new and it's intriguing:
In what any ethicist might declare to be legitimate ‘embryonic stem cell therapy,’ the baby’s fetal stem cells migrate to the mother’s injured sites and offer themselves as a healing remedy, becoming part of the mother’s very body. Pinctott writes that such cells have been found in “diseased thyroid and liver tissue and have turned themselves into thyroid and liver cells respectively.”
Pinctott calls the evidence “striking” that a baby’s fetal cells “repair and rejuvenate moms.”
Genetics specialist Dr. Kirby Johnson of Tufts Medical Center, Boston, and professor Carol Artlett, a researcher at Philadelphia’s Thomas Jefferson University, back up Pinctott’s ideas. Their research shows that when a woman becomes pregnant she acquires an army of protective cells - what might be called a gift from her child - that remains with her for decades, perhaps till the end of her life.
Johnson and Artlett spoke to NPR’s Robert Krulwich in a 2006 interview. In their research, Johnson found that a teaspoon of blood from a pregnant mother contained “dozens, perhaps even hundreds of cells… from the baby.” Science has shown that at the end of a mother’s pregnancy, up to 6 percent of the DNA in her blood plasma comes from her baby. (source)
More personally, a couple of us have family tendencies towards severe PMS, and multiple pregnancies and nursing in between have kept our families more peaceful and calm because they are not subject to monthly motherly mood swings. That's a definite positive!
3. Of all the comments, only three have had what might be considered permanent or long-term problems. These are their comments:
- I was glucose intolerant with the first three kids, full blown gestational diabetes with the last two, of which I needed to use insulin with the last. So far had it has gone away after the baby is born, but I'm more predisposed to develop regular diabetes some time in my life. In my mind, however, I was born with a higher risk, since diabetes runs in both sides of my family and I think pregnancy just uncovered that risk.
- Yes, but I've had poor health most of my life anyway, so I don't think my answer is a fair contribution to this poll.
- For me, I feel like the older I get, the harder pregnancy is on my body. Towards the end of my 5th pregnancy I had some pretty significant vision changes, and although it improved a bit after delivery it has been debilitating. With pregnancy #6 I again had even more problems with the same thing. My baby is now 10 months old and, unfortunately not much has changed or improved either.
- Varicose veins. One mother expecting #10 says, "I have varicose veins but they started up part way into my 2nd pregnancy and by my fourth were about as bad as they are now so even if I had stopped after only a few kids I'd still have them. "
- Stretch marks (though at least one of us has none -- wow!)
- Low Iron
- Thyroid Issues
- Incontinence during pregnancy when laughing or sneezing
- Extra weight and more belly fat
- Pregnancy mask (brown splotchy marks on the face from hormones and the sun)
- Gestational Diabetes (just a few mentioned this)
- Sacroiliac Joint Disfunction (one person had this)
- Tiredness and difficulty sleeping during pregnancy (you think?)
6. It is hard to separate out what challenges we've had might be due to multiple pregnancies and what might be due to age or family history. We know women who've never had children who have bladder issues and varicose veins, for instance, and the challenges of pregnancy are tougher in an older body whether that child is your first or your tenth. In Amy's words: "Women who have had many babies get told that they have worn out their bodies, when I believe the difficulty of their pregnancies could be very closely compared to that of women of the same age having their first or second."
7. Many of us feel we are in much better shape physically because the responsibility of having so many children has made us more determined to stay in shape. Most of my friends with large families are very attentive to their own health. I've learned a ton about healthy eating from them as well as regular exercise. My own journey to lose weight and get into running the last few years was motivated most of all by knowing I needed to be stronger for the sake of my family -- if I die, I don't know who would take over! But more than that, I have got to be at the top of my game physically and spiritually to be able to take care of this wonderful and immense responsibility.
So there you have it -- some of the positive health benefits of having lots of kids along with some of the negative stuff that we've experienced. I'd love to hear more perspectives on this subject -- what has your experience with pregnancy been? Has age or the number of pregnancies had a positive or negative effect on your health? What do you think of the studies I discovered?