For Janice Stagnitto Ellis, “morning” sickness was a misnomer. During the entire first trimester of her pregnancy two years ago, Ellis, 38, of Silver Spring, Md., would wake up, go to work, come home and go to bed — queasy all the while. And her churning stomach wasn’t the worst of it. “I felt really guilty,” she says. “How could I keep myself — and my baby — healthy, when eating was so awful?”
Like Ellis, up to 75 percent of women experience nausea sometime during pregnancy — usually during the first three months. If you’re one of the unlucky many who are plagued by this condition, how can you make sure to get the nutrients you and your baby need — without making yourself feel even worse?
What causes the nausea?
Because morning sickness is considered a normal — albeit unpleasant — part of pregnancy, few researchers have studied it, says Lisa Signorello, Sc.D., an epidemiologist at the International Epidemiology Institute in Rockville, Md. Preliminary studies have linked a high-fat diet with severe morning sickness, though little research on the connection has been done. Scientists instead generally blame skyrocketing levels of hormones such as estrogen and HCG. Yet no one knows why some pregnant women escape morning sickness altogether — while 2 percent become so dehydrated that they require hospitalization.
To stay healthy when you feel nauseated, try experimenting a little. The classic therapy is to nibble on saltine crackers and sip ginger ale before you get out of bed in the morning. But many women have found new alternatives. For Ellis, it was smoothies — not too sloshy, and rich with fresh fruit — combined with snacks of raisins throughout the day. If liquids make you squeamish, try fruits that tend to taste mild and pack a lot of water, such as melons and citrus. Avoiding big meals and snacking on rice cakes or whole-grain crackers may also help relieve nausea.
What can you do about it?
Food is not necessarily the culprit — or the solution. For some women, morning sickness is in the nose, not the head, says Miriam Erick, M.S., R.D. A maternity dietitian and author of No More Morning Sickness: A Survival Guide for Pregnant Women (Plume, 1993), Erick notes that strong odors, rather than foods, tend to upset some women (see “The Nose Knows”).
One way to quiet the queasies, then, is to sniff a soothing scent. Citrus smells — like lemon, orange or grapefruit — may help you relax and regain gastric composure. Pine twigs and eucalyptus leaves can also prove soothing. What’s more, Erick suggests skipping fragrant hot lunches in favor of cold sandwiches or pasta salad — possibly eaten on a park bench, where there’s plenty of fresh air.
And while junk food shouldn’t be everyday fare, give yourself permission to occasionally indulge when you’re feeling sick. “Lemonade and potato chips can taste good while soothing your stomach,” Erick says. “A few bags of potato chips doesn’t make you a bad mom, and they may get you through your nausea. The chips include folic acid, and the combination actually is more nutritious than saltines and ginger ale.” On the other hand, greasy foods make some women feel worse.
Finally, there is one tasteless, odorless substance every pregnant woman can and should consume daily: water. Drinking eight glasses a day — or as close to that as possible — can keep you from becoming dehydrated.
What it all comes down to is this: Seek out the solution that works for you. Sometimes diet has nothing to do with it; many women find relief from wristbands designed to prevent seasickness. Others escape claustrophobic neighborhoods or crowded offices by changing schedules, spending weekends away or taking work home.