Shortness of Breath during Pregnancy: The Causes & 8 Ways to Beat It

From the moment you found out you were pregnant you knew changes were coming. But you probably never expected to have trouble catching your breath – they don’t tell you about that one in the pregnancy handbook. Just walking down the hall to the bathroom gets you winded. What’s going on?

The good news is that it’s completely normal to experience mild breathlessness during pregnancy, and your baby is perfectly safe.

What Causes Shortness of Breath during Pregnancy?

There are a couple of reasons why pregnant women all of a sudden start feeling like they can’t catch their breath, and breathlessness can happen at any point during pregnancy, although it’s more common in the second trimester.

When shortness of breath occurs in early pregnancy, it often comes across as a feeling of needing to breathe more often.

And there’s a simple explanation for this sensation: pregnant women need more oxygen. The need for more oxygen can make you feel breathless, or like you need to take more breaths.

Pregnancy hormones are also to blame (no surprise there). Higher levels of progesterone affect your lungs and the respiratory center in your brain. Pregnancy hormones typically start causing shortness of breath in the second trimester.

Around 31 weeks you’ll start feeling out of breath again, but this time, the breathlessness is caused by lung compression. That’s right – your uterus expands to the point where it compresses your lungs, which makes it more difficult for them to fully expand when you take a breath.

While it may feel like you’re taking more breaths per minute, breathing patterns change very little during pregnancy. You’re simply taking in significantly more oxygen with each breath you take.

How Long Does the Breathlessness Last?

If you’re feeling winded after nothing more than a short trip to the refrigerator, you may be wondering how long you’ll have to deal with this inconvenient pregnancy side effect.

Unfortunately, you’ll be waiting quite some time.

If this is your first pregnancy, your baby may drop down to your pelvis (or engage) after 36 weeks. This might give you some relief, but if you’ve been pregnant before, your baby may not engage until the very end of your pregnancy.

The good news is that once you’ve given birth, your progesterone levels will come back down. The bad news is that it can still take a few months for your ribcage and your respiratory system to return to normal.

Should I Be Worried about My Shortness of Breath?

Breathlessness is very common during pregnancy – most women will experience it. While it’s typically nothing to worry about, there are some red flags that you should be on the lookout for.

If you’re experiencing any of the symptoms below, see your doctor as soon as possible to rule out any underlying medical conditions:

  • Acute shortness of breath – meaning the feeling of breathlessness came on suddenly and appears to be getting worse.
  • Your shortness of breath is severe.
  • Your fingertips and/or lips start turning blue.
  • Your pulse quickens.
  • You’re experiencing chest pain.
  • Trouble breathing when you’re laying down.

In some cases, fatigue and shortness of breath are caused by anemia. A simple blood test can confirm whether your iron levels are low.

If you have asthma, it’s important to talk to your doctor or midwife about your condition early on in the pregnancy. The risks of not being able to control your asthma symptoms far outweigh the risks of taking asthma medication during your pregnancy, so consult with your physician to ensure that you’re safely managing your asthma.

8 Ways to Combat Shortness of Breath during Pregnancy

There are many ways to combat that feeling of breathlessness during your pregnancy:

1.    Stay Calm

One of the best things you can do is relax – stay calm. It’s easy to start panicking when you feel out of breath, but it’s important to remember that this is completely normal. Most pregnant women will experience shortness of breath at some point.

Panicking or worrying will only make your breathing shallower which exacerbates the problem.

Sit down, take a deep breath, and just relax.

2.    Take it Easy

Doctors routinely recommend that pregnant women take things slow and easy. Exerting too much energy too quickly will make you feel breathless, or make your symptoms even worse. Try not to overexert yourself during exercise, and take a break from your daily chores or work when you’re out of breath.

You’re taking on the monumental task of growing another human, so cut yourself a little slack and relax when you’re feeling winded.

3.    Practice Good Posture

Your mother was right when she told you to sit up with a straight back. Sitting up straight will give your lungs the room they need to fully expand and take in all the oxygen you need.

If you’re working at a desk, be mindful of your posture. Make sure that you’re not slumping over the keyboard with your shoulders rounded. Proper-seated posture will make it easier to breathe.

4.    Prop Yourself Up at Night

Many doctors recommend propping yourself up on your left side at night to make it easier for your lungs to breathe. Use pillows or blankets to place yourself in an elevated position while you sleep.

5.    Exercise or Prenatal Yoga

As long as you don’t overdo it, it’s perfectly fine to exercise during pregnancy. In fact, most doctors recommend it.

Aerobic exercise in particular can help alleviate or prevent shortness of breath. Cardio workouts improve your breathing while also lowering your pulse.

If you prefer a gentler form of exercise try prenatal yoga. Breathing is a key part of yoga, and all of that stretching will give your lungs more room to breathe.

No matter whether you prefer a cardio workout or the gentle yoga approach, make sure that your doctor approves your routine before you start. And be sure not to overdo it. Listen to your body. If you’re feeling tired and out of breath, stop.

6.    Lift Up Your Arms

It may sound silly, but try lifting your arms above your head the next time you feel out of breath. This position takes a lot of the pressure off of your ribcage, which will give your lungs some more room to take in more oxygen.

7.    Breathing Exercises

When you feel breathless, try sitting down and practicing some breathing exercises. Abdominal breathing becomes more difficult as your uterus grows, but there are some excellent exercises that can help promote deep chest breathing.

  • Raise and lower your head as you inhale and exhale.
  • Inhale deeply and raise your arms up. Exhale slowly as you bring your arms down to your side.

To make sure that you’re breathing into your chest, place your hands on the side of your ribcage to check for expansion. Your ribs should push out against your hands when you inhale deeply.

8.    Eat a Healthy, Balanced Diet

You’re certainly not concerned about losing weight during pregnancy, but being overweight can make your symptoms worse. Eat a healthy, balanced diet throughout your pregnancy and make sure that you’re staying hydrated. Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, especially leafy greens.

Remember: Breathlessness is Normal during Pregnancy

The next time you feel winded, try a breathing exercise or one of the other tips listed above. But above all else, try not to panic. It’s completely normal to feel out of breath from time to time during pregnancy, and your baby is not in danger.

However, if your breathlessness is serious, you start turning blue or you have asthma, get medical attention right away as this may be a sign of something more serious.

Otherwise, relax, try to take a deep breath and give yourself a break. Breathlessness may just be your body’s way of telling you to take it easy and rest.