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    Pregnancy sickness: Why we need to stop using the phrase “morning sickness”

    Updated 01 February 2023 |
    Published 30 March 2022
    Fact Checked
    Dr. Cynthia DeTata
    Medically reviewed by Dr. Cynthia DeTata, Clinical assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology, Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital, California, US
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    Nausea and vomiting can strike at any time of the day or night during early pregnancy, so experts think we should stop using the phrase “morning sickness” — and we agree. Here, Chloe Lovell — a writer and mom-of-two based in the UK — shares her experience of pregnancy sickness.

    “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. 

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    Pregnancy sickness: The truth about so-called “morning sickness”

    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.”

    Pregnancy sickness: The mental impact and where to get support

    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.

    Pregnancy sickness: Why we need to change the conversation

    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”