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.
Melanie and her cute family

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)

Amelia's adorable family -- will all these kids actually extend her life?

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.
4. Most of the problems we've experienced as a group are fairly common to pregnancy (no matter the number) and most resolve themselves after delivery. These include:
  • 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?)
5. Many of us feel that labor and delivery are much easier in later pregnancies.

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.

Ana exercises daily, eats amazingly healthy (much better than me!), bakes bread every week, and manages to stay sane, even with nine kids!

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?


Rachel Keppner said…
I love this post! I have found all of the above to be true. Women were DESIGNED to reproduce. Muscles get stronger as you use them. And since the uterus is a muscle, guess how healthy the uterus of a mom of many is???

Pregnancy over age 30 is harder for ANYONE, whether they've had two babies or ten. Having been pregnant at age 19 with my first, and now pregnant with my twelfth at age 37, I can attest to this! But interestingly enough, my births have gotten easier. Experience really does help in that department! LOL!

Oh, and as a side note, every time I have a baby, my eyesight improves. It baffles my eye doctor, but it makes me happy! :-D
Montana Blakes said…
This was great Christina! I loved it! I will say that as much as I hated being pregnant when I was 21/22, I still am no fan. I do think it is harder in many ways--but I'm not sure if it's because I'm older or have had more pregnancies (although that plays into it). There is so much more I have to DO with the other kids (but then, they are big helpers with chores, dinner and the little kids so there is that.) I do think I have to be more conscious of health than when I was younger--but who doesn't? I haven't found labor and delivery to be difficult--it goes about the same as my first few. Thanks for letting me be a part of this article!
Catey said…
Lots of pregnancies has done me SO much good! I am in MUCH better shape now than I ever was before, and though I can feel that I get more tired easily as I get older, in general pregnancy has gotten easier! I appreciate it all a heck of a lot more too.
My health has improved, and I've been blessed to avoid most of even the common pregnancy issues that many women encounter-even when they only have one or two.
My labors/deliveries haven't gotten progressively easier, they are still all over the place, just as varied as the babies the come from each of them. :) I'm due for an easy one this time around so I'm keeping my fingers crossed. lol

Very cool studies!
John said…
I asked my Obgyn if I have moved into the high risk category for my current pregnancy because I will be 37 shortly after the baby is born. He said that the opposite was true. He said that for older women who are having their first baby the risks are high; new mothers cause lots of problems, but moms who have had a lot of babies are at a much smaller risk no matter the age and are the easiest and funnest patients.
Montserrat said…
Great summary of our discussion! I love having those studies to back up what we all feel- that having more children really does benefit our health overall. Another thing, I think, is it keeps us "young."
Cheryl said…
I think my 5th was the easiest pregnancy so far --my 6th was really, really hard. But! It was because I wasn't in very good shape, if I'm being honest.

I love being pregnant, though --even with the "difficulty" of it all. Being pregnant multiple times has taught me more about my body and my reactions to environmental factors than anything else, though. The more kids I have, the better I get at taking care of myself (I loved that you mentioned that!) and the more I read/learn to make sure I am taking care of myself.

The stretch marks are beauty marks to me! The warped/deformed ribs give my asthmatic lungs more room to breathe (I assume!). And awesomely, with each kid, I've needed less stitching after birth (to where the last two I didn't have any and only tore a smidgen).

All in all, having a lot of kids hasn't hurt my health at all, I believe.
Tiffany Wacaser said…
Such a wonderful post. I loved all the insights and found the studies about stem cells fascinating. Maybe there is hope for me and my lupus after all!

I had my first three children in a short period of time while in my 20's. Then I was diagnosed with lupus. My subsequent three pregnancies were much more complicated and one ended in miscarriage. My fifth pregnancy was the most difficult with several serious health things cropping up. However, I've been blessed to be healthy following the births. And I would agree, that, for the most part, my deliveries have been much easier.

I hope to be able to have another baby in a couple of years, and many of the thoughts expressed have been insightful.
Claire said…
Anyone else have bad after pains? After Katy (#4) was born I was in so much pain still....it wasn't anything like the first three. I felt like I was still having contractions and had to breathe through them for the rest of the day. My L&D nurse was a mother of five, and she told me that the after pains got worse with each child she had.
Amber said…
I love the pictures-- such cute families and moms!! Thanks for keeping up this blog, it makes having many children a little easier!!
Liz Wheeler said…
These were great studies and comments. It seems like our society will find whatever ways to disparage women from having children, so these studies were a breathe of fresh air. I really admire mom's with many children. You should write more about them on your blog.

I'm also becoming less convinced of the "35 years old" rule that women are too old or "risky" to have kids at that point. I think maybe I feel like the Lord has timing for our kids to come to the earth and maybe that means some pregnancies in our older ages. Pres. Monson's mom had his little sister when she was 48.

I hope one day I can have more children too.
Lori said…
I am a 59 year old mother of 7. There are 20 years between the oldest and youngest. My youngest was born when I was 44. I often get asked if the pregnancy at 44 was harder and I have to say it was probably my easiest. I am a very healthy person, but pregnancy was still pregancy with its physical challenges. I know each of us is an individual and each ones experiences are unique, but my concern lately is not the number of children we choose to have, but the reasoning behind our choice. There has never been an age of more information and ability to choose our lifestyles. I am so concerned about the influence of selfishness on our choices to give the gift of life. These choices cannot be made by earthly standards and knowledge.
Tiffany Wacaser said…
My great-grandmother, for some reason, wasn't able to have children after having her two boys (my grandfather and great-uncle). She was in her 40's and developed what appeared to be a large lump in her stomach. The doctors thought it might be cancer, but it turns out she was pregnant! There is a 14-year gap between my great-aunt and my grandfather. She did just fine.
Candace said…
Yes! Wow, after #5 last fall, it was just like being in labor each time the baby would nurse and my stomach would contract. I'm not big on meds, but I had to take something for the after birth pains that first day or two this last time.
3in3mom said…
What a beautiful post! I have not had the opportunity to have many pregnancies and yet as I see the blessings of many children I know Heavenly Father has a plan for all. What wonderful families you have shared! All so blessed to be creating such amazing families!
Marinda said…
What a fantastic post! Thanks for answering the questions everyone must ask! It was very interesting and enlightening and even encouraging! You are great!
Anonymous said…
Hmm, according to the study done by the University of Florida, babies that are born of multiple birth have more than a 50 percent chance of having adverse health defects. Cases like premature birth, low birth weight, and risks to the mother are some of the concerns regarding multiple birth. These cases can be solved through family planning education and abstinence. You cannot risk your life in situations like this because, in the end, it's your baby who will suffer.

Aiko Dumas
Handsfullmom said…

I believe the study you refer to is referencing a different kind of "multiple" births -- what is often referred to as higher order births; that is, twins, triplets or higher. I am well acquainted with the studies on such births (I read dozens of books on the subject when I was pregnant with my own twins) and you are right. Half of twins and other multiples are born early and there can be devastating problems with very premature births. In what I've written in this post, however, I am referring to multiple births as in multiple single births. As far as I know, there are no increased risks of premature birth in these cases, except what would be normal for those in special categories, such as older mothers or those with pregnancy complications.
Unknown said…
There are no guarantees. My mother had 5 children, the last of which while still in her 20s. She died of breast cancer at 73 yrs. of age.
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