“Please, not again,” I thought to myself as the wave of nausea returned. It was quickly followed by a hot flash and the curdling of another sick spell. At 8 weeks pregnant, I was well acquainted with one of the most common symptoms of pregnancy: nausea and vomiting.
One afternoon, as I sat down with my manager for an urgent work discussion, I could feel the vomit volcano ready to erupt. I had no choice but to run to the restroom as quickly as possible. If this was just “morning sickness,” then why did I feel so horrendous? And why was it happening throughout the day?
“Morning sickness” is a term used by exasperated parents-to-be because it’s so rooted in our collective vocabulary and regularly referred to as such everywhere from movies to social media. But in fact, it’s not the terminology many medical professionals want to use these days.
“Morning sickness sounds like something that is confined to just one part of the day, and that is simply not true. Nausea and vomiting in pregnancy can occur at any time of the day,” says Dr. Sara Twogood, MD, an OB-GYN (obstetrician and gynecologist) at Cedars Sinai Medical Group, Los Angeles. Dr. Twogood believes the phrase “morning sickness” trivializes the symptom, and she highlights that the phrase is not even medically correct.
A study carried out at University of Warwick in England, published in 2020, analyzed 256 pregnant women and found that 94% experienced nausea and/or vomiting. The same study found that symptoms of nausea and vomiting were experienced throughout the day, and not just the “morning.” Despite this knowledge and many medical websites citing that the phrase is a misnomer, it continues to be used regularly.
While this pregnancy symptom is common, the severity is extremely variable from person to person — and even pregnancy to pregnancy. Some may feel nauseous for a short time, while others may spend hours vomiting. In extreme cases, 3% of pregnant people experience a severe form of nausea and vomiting of pregnancy known as hyperemesis gravidarum (HG). This can lead to dehydration and urgent hospitalization. Thankfully, treatments like intravenous fluids and medications to control vomiting are available.
In both my pregnancies, I experienced severe nausea and vomiting for 20 long weeks. It felt as though I were in a permanent state of sea sickness, coupled with daily doses of vomiting sessions.
Experiencing such a well-known pregnancy symptom initially gave me comfort that the baby was likely to be okay. It almost felt like an initiation into parenthood. But the feeling of privilege quickly wore off.
I was forced to share my pregnancy news at work early after the umpteenth time calling in sick. Months’ worth of canceling catch-ups with friends left me feeling lonely and isolated. I felt like I had failed in my first task as a new parent: to handle pregnancy nausea and vomiting without complaining. I also felt guilty for hating my pregnancy, rather than enjoying and celebrating it.
“Morning sickness sounds like something that is confined to just one part of the day, and that is simply not true. Nausea and vomiting in pregnancy can occur at any time of the day.”
I’ve since discovered that I’m not alone in how low I felt as a result of pregnancy nausea and vomiting. A 2021 survey published in the journal Obstetric Medicine found that — heartbreakingly — 25.5% of the 5,000 pregnant women with HG surveyed occasionally thought about suicide. A further 6.6% regularly considered suicide as a result of living with HG.
Just over half of those surveyed had considered terminating their pregnancy, and 4.9% had terminated an otherwise wanted pregnancy — all because of their experience with HG.
If you’re struggling with this, too, speak to your health care provider and know that support is out there. In the United States, The Lifeline runs a 24-hour helpline, and in the United Kingdom, Samaritans offers the same listening ear.
Dr. Twogood explains, “Nausea and vomiting of any severity can be quite disturbing and disruptive to people experiencing it. When it lasts for weeks on end, it can be almost impossible to enjoy the pregnancy, which then creates feelings of guilt and anxiety.
“In more severe cases, it can cause depression and anxiety symptoms that require therapy and/or psychiatric help. People might miss work or other social activities, which can be isolating,” she says.
At the 10-week mark of my first pregnancy, I was sure something was wrong. How could this symptom that was so casually spoken of consume every minute of my day? After reading that anti-nausea medication could help, I booked an appointment with my doctor to find out more.
But I was quickly dismissed. “It’s very common and just morning sickness. Drink some ginger tea or eat a ginger biscuit and you’ll feel much better,” they told me. The thing is, I’d consumed everything and anything ginger for weeks, and nothing had eased my discomfort. I left feeling humiliated.
My feelings of guilt and shame were amplified by the phrase “morning sickness” and its suggestion that nausea and vomiting in pregnancy aren’t that bad. It suggests that those who moan about it simply can’t handle it or are lying about its severity. The phrase allows for gaslighting to thrive and exemplifies how the voices of women and pregnant people are often undervalued.
Of course, many health care professionals are on hand to properly listen to patients and help them as much as they can with treatments to alleviate or lessen symptoms. If you don’t feel your health care provider is addressing your symptoms and concerns properly, ask for a second opinion.
It’s a frustrating situation, to say the least, but thankfully there’s a growing number of parents, advocates, and medical professionals pushing back against the outdated language stopping people who are experiencing pregnancy nausea and vomiting from feeling seen, heard, and supported.
“I think it would get taken more seriously if it was referred to by its proper term: ‘pregnancy sickness’ or ‘nausea and vomiting in pregnancy.’ The phrase ‘morning sickness’ is not helpful. Medicalize it instead of making it some sort of fluffy thing. It’s actually really serious, and we need to take it seriously,” says Dr. Cailtin Dean, a registered general nurse and a specialist in HG. She is a trustee of the nonprofit Pregnancy Sickness Support, which runs a helpline and shares resources to support people through nausea and vomiting in pregnancy. She’s also the author of the Spewing Mummy (a support website for people with HG) and has experienced HG in all her pregnancies.
“Being more specific by calling it ‘nausea and vomiting of pregnancy’ is my preference, as the term ‘sickness' can also be problematic. We use the term ‘sick’ to mean all sorts — from a mild cold to a life-threatening cancer diagnosis,” Dr. Twogood explains.
“My feelings of guilt and shame were amplified by the phrase ‘morning sickness’ and its suggestion that nausea and vomiting in pregnancy aren’t that bad”
Nicola Cutcher, a UK-based journalist and mom-of-two, found herself angered by the inaccuracy of the phrase “morning sickness,” compared with her experience of it. So much so that she and fellow journalist Charlotte Howden have created a campaign to end the phrase being used and encourage people to speak out online that it’s #NotMorningSickness.
“It’s the most ill I’ve ever been in my life. It ended around week 16 both times, and for me, it got much worse in the afternoon and evenings. It felt like extraordinarily bad motion sickness. It made me feel quite depressed, and I’m generally a very smiley person,” Cutcher says.
In her own research, she discovered that many countries actually don’t use the phrase “morning sickness.” Common terms globally are far more neutral and medically grounded. Spain, Sweden, and Italy, for example, often use the phrase “pregnancy nausea.”
But it seems to be somewhat of a mystery as to where the unhelpful phrase originated. “The best I could find was a PhD thesis by Rachael Russell that examined early 1800s literature in England,” shares Cutcher.
Russell’s thesis focuses on the history of nausea and vomiting in pregnancy during the 19th century. Her work reveals that male doctors dominated this area of research. They encouraged the idea that nausea and vomiting was just a “normal” part of pregnancy and a “pathological” condition. Those who experienced it the most were apparently upper-class women, who were considered more “hysterical” than others.
The thesis concludes that doctors during this time used these “medical rationales as a means of controlling and restricting women.” With this in mind, how is it possible that we are still using such an outdated, sexist, and inadequate phrase?
Pregnant people deserve a term that truly reflects the severity and seriousness of nausea and vomiting in pregnancy, not a phrase that makes light of pregnant people ending up in the hospital or considering ending their lives.
The phrase “morning sickness” completely misleads us to think that nausea and vomiting in pregnancy is short lived and easily managed. But that isn’t the case for everyone. While some may have mild symptoms, others may develop post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of their severe experience.
Let’s stop using the phrase “morning sickness,” which trivializes the condition. And let’s speak up about our experiences because they are all totally valid.
Remember, if you have any concerns about your pregnancy nausea and vomiting and would like support, speak to your health care provider.
Flo is committed to changing the narrative around so-called “morning sickness,” so from now on, we’ll be using the terms nausea and vomiting. You might spot the use of “morning sickness” in older content for the time being. Bear with us while we’re in the process of making changes.