Mother knows best?

Mums-to-be can be swamped with information about how to deal with pregnancy and baby care issues, and pharmacy staff are ideally placed to help them decipher it

The number of websites, forums, online communities and articles about pregnancy and baby care that are available can be overwhelming for mums. It’s a far cry from the days when women just took advice from their mums and grans. Becoming a new mum today can also be lonely, with many families now living further apart than in previous generations. In fact, research conducted by Bepanthen has found that nearly half of new mums feel lonely in the first month after giving birth. 

Accurate information from the pharmacy is key, especially when it comes to determining the truth behind some of the more weird and wonderful old wives’ tales. So is there is any science behind these tales or are they just nonsense?

Is ginger best for morning sickness?

Marie Louise is senior midwife at The Baby Show event. She says ginger has been proven to be a natural antiemetic, but she warns this is “only for women with morning sickness. If a woman is unable to keep anything down, including water, she may have hyperemesis and urgently needs a referral into hospital for hydration”.

If a woman has bad morning sickness, she’s expecting a girl

More than half of all pregnant women suffer from morning sickness to some degree, but The National Childbirth Trust (NCT) says there is no truth in the saying that bad sickness indicates a girl. Morning sickness is thought to be caused by an increase in hormones in the early stages of pregnancy, and not by the gender of the baby.

Can dads show signs of pregnancy?

Yes, they can, says the NCT. It’s been known for a dad-to-be to start gaining weight, experience morning sickness and even feel cramps in his stomach. The condition is known as “sympathetic pregnancy” or “Couvade Syndrome”, which comes from the French word “couvée”, meaning “brood”.

When a woman is pregnant, it’s best for her to sleep on her left side

Sleeping on one side is best while a woman is pregnant, and NCT experts say sleeping on the left side in later pregnancy may benefit the baby by improving blood flow – and therefore nutrients – to the placenta. It also helps the kidneys efficiently eliminate waste products and fluids from the body.

If a woman has a high bump, she’s probably having a boy

This is another myth, according to the NCT. The shape of a woman’s bump depends on a variety of factors, including body shape, muscle tone and, of course, the position of the baby.

Do certain cravings indicate a vitamin or mineral deficiency?

Almost two-thirds of mums-to-be experience a food craving, and some theories link these cravings to nutritional needs. For instance, a craving for milk might mean the woman needs calcium, while a craving for fruit could signal a need for vitamin C. But The Baby Show’s Marie Louise says this is not necessarily the case. “Research suggests that women may have cravings during pregnancy, but this doesn’t indicate deficiency,” she says. “I once had a patient who craved the smell of tarmac. She would Google local areas that were undertaking roadworks and drive to them to fulfil her craving. However, I would not recommend the inhalation of chemicals or overeating one particular food to satisfy cravings.”

A woman’s sense of smell gets stronger when she’s pregnant

Actually, according to the NCT, this is true. During pregnancy, a woman’s sense of smell increases drastically, as does her sense of taste. This phenomenon is thought to help pregnant women avoid eating small amounts of toxins that might not be dangerous to an adult but could possibly affect an unborn baby.

Should women eat for two when they’re pregnant? 

Marie says definitely not. “Calorie intake should only increase in the last trimester by around 200 calories per day,” she says. “Eating for two is not recommended and will increase the risk of gestational diabetes and unnecessary weight gain, which will lead to further problems during the third trimester, labour, birth and the postnatal period.” 

On the other hand, breastfeeding burns more calories than pregnancy, so Marie suggests that women can increase their intake by up to 500 calories a day whilst breastfeeding, if they wish to.

Eating a curry can bring on labour

This is perhaps one of the most often quoted food myths surrounding pregnancy, but the NCT says there is no truth in it. Many people believe that eating curry will bring on labour as it can stimulate the bowels, which in turn could stimulate the uterus. However, there is no scientific evidence to show that this actually happens.

Does heartburn in pregnancy mean a hairy baby?

While heartburn in pregnancy can be caused by overeating, hormonal changes, and the growing womb pressing on the stomach, Marie says that several studies have proven that heartburn is linked to a hairy baby, so this old wives’ tale appears to carry some truth. However, rather than this being because of a cause-and-effect between the two, researchers think it is down to the same hormones that cause heartburn also playing a role in how much hair a foetus grows in the womb.

Guinness is good in pregnancy

Some people claim that a daily dose of stout during pregnancy is beneficial as it is a good source of iron. However, Nelsons pharmacist Susanne Haar says: “Guinness and similar stouts contain no more iron than standard beer and you would need to drink a whopping 35 pints
to get your daily intake of iron. More importantly, pregnant women should avoid alcohol altogether as not only does it carry an increased risk of miscarriage, but it may be harmful for the unborn baby.”

Cabbage leaves can help to treat cracked nipples

Lana Orton, pharmacist, online marketing manager at women’s self-care company Purple Orchid Pharma, and mother of two boys under five, says some midwives still recommend savoy cabbage as a remedy for soothing breasts and nipples for breastfeeding mums. However, she adds: “There’s no scientific data on that being useful as far as we are aware, although keeping it in the fridge will cool the leaves, which are a great shape to cup the aching breast and cool them.”

With a lot of these folk remedies, there is no harm in trying them, but when it comes to other common pregnancy and baby care ailments, pharmacy staff should be aware of how to advise mums on how to treat them safely with proven products.

Common ailments and issues

Pregnancy problems

During pregnancy, the body goes through a lot of change, so it’s no wonder that minor ailments are common. For example, a lot of expectant mums experience fatigue, which Marie Louise, senior midwife, The Baby Show, warns can be due to anaemia. Marie advises that women have the required blood tests undertaken by their midwife. “Liquid iron supplements are also great,” she says. “Pharmacy staff should advise women to drink orange juice alongside iron because it increases absorption.”

Back ache and/or SPD (symphysis pubis dysfunction) are also common, so Marie suggests advising women to wear support belts and comfortable shoes for posture. However, she says: “Pain relief should be reviewed by a senior obstetrician as neonates [newborns] can suffer withdrawal from analgesia if it has been taken long term.”

Around 80 per cent of women suffer from dyspepsia (indigestion) during pregnancy because the relaxing of the lower oesophageal sphincter acts like a gate between the stomach and oesophagus, allowing stomach acid to leak back up. Marie’s advice is to take peppermint water. Certain OTC products are good for dyspepsia and heartburn too and are safe to take during pregnancy. Check with the pharmacist to confirm which ones are suitable.

Baby issues

It’s normal that babies will experience a variety of minor ailments, most of which can be dealt with quickly and easily with advice and products from the pharmacy.

  • Coughs and colds

Children can catch between eight and 12 colds a year because there are hundreds of different cold viruses to which they don’t have immunity. The NCT’s advice for easing symptoms includes increasing the amount of fluid the baby is drinking, and trying saline nose drops to help loosen dried nasal secretions and relieve a stuffy nose. If they have a fever, pain or discomfort, liquid paracetamol or ibuprofen can help, at the right strength and dosage for the child’s age. If symptoms persist or the baby has a high temperature, is unable to swallow fluids or saliva, or is breathless, refer to the pharmacist.

  • Teething

Teething is part of a baby’s growth and development, and while symptoms can be painful, remedies are available. Teething rings, unsweetened rusks or chilled raw fruits and vegetables, such as apples, celery and carrots for babies over six months can give relief.

There are specific teething gels for babies over the age of four months, which can be applied to their gums. Infant paracetamol or ibuprofen liquid can also help.

  • Colic

Colic, a common condition that affects one in five babies, is characterised as excessive crying or periods of fussing in babies who are otherwise healthy and thriving. According to the NCT, there is currently no cure, so any treatment is centred around soothing the baby, such as carrying them around in a sling to comfort them, or bathing them in a warm bath. OTC products are also available to help relieve symptoms.

  • Medicines advice

It’s worth bearing in mind that there are many misconceptions about what medicines are suitable for children. “Parents want to know what a medicine is for and what harm it can potentially cause, but there are lots of myths out there,” says consultant pharmacist Stephen Tomlin, lead for the children’s medicine service at Evelina London Children’s Hospital. “It is essential that parents understand that it may be as harmful (or more so) not to give their child medicine as it is to give it,” he says.

Good communication is key in enabling pharmacy staff to help parents understand what is in the best interests of their children.

Pregnancy vitamins – a waste of money, or a good idea? 

A recent review of available evidence in the journal Drug and Therapeutics Bulletin claimed that pregnant women are wasting their money on vitamin supplements because they do not improve their own or their baby’s health.

Many women take supplements during their pregnancy, including vitamins B1, B2, B3, B6, B12, C, D, E, K, folic acid, iodine, magnesium, iron, copper, zinc and selenium. The review confirms existing official advice that all expectant mothers should have enough folic acid (400 micrograms daily until they are 12 weeks into their pregnancy) and vitamin D, but cautions against the other nutrients, stating that “complex multivitamin and mineral preparations promoted for use during pregnancy are unlikely to be needed and are an unnecessary expense”.

However, Dr Carrie Ruxton, dietitian and spokeswoman for the Health Supplements Information Service, has rejected the findings. She says the authors of the study wrongly claim that vitamin and mineral supplements must produce clinical effects before pregnant women are encouraged to take them. “This is absolute nonsense,” she says. “Except for folic acid – which does have a therapeutic role by actively preventing neural tube disorders – the role of food supplements is simply to combat dietary gaps. They are not drugs so would not be expected to improve birth outcomes or treat conditions such as pre-eclampsia in non-malnourished populations.”

Evidence from the National Diet and Nutrition Survey shows that few women eat the right diet, so Dr Ruxton says that it is unhelpful to put women off supplementation during pregnancy when so many have inadequate diets and risk deficiency in vitamin D and iodine, among other nutrients. “Instead,” she says, “the useful role of supplements, including fish oils, alongside dietary improvements, should be recognised.”

Having a healthy attitude towards diet is alo essential for breastfeeding mothers, according to Lily Soutter, nutritional therapist at Nuffield Health. “Dehydration can be a major issue for lactating mothers, which can hinder milk production as well induce fatigue,” she says. “As breastfeeding transfers essential nutrients to the baby, mothers should consume three meals a day rich in protein, complex carbohydrates, vegetables and healthy fats, as well as staying well hydrated.”


More than half of all pregnant women suffer from morning sickness to some degree

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