Am I Pregnant?

Signs That You May (or May Not) Be Pregnant

By Margot Hedlin

 

You’re sitting on the toilet, staring at a thin white strip. You urge it to change colors, to tell you that you’re pregnant, the moment you’ve been waiting for—or you find yourself holding your breath, desperately hoping it won’t change, trying to think of any other reason why your period might be late. These can be the longest two minutes of your life.

Pregnancy can be complicated for a lot of reasons; the surge of emotions leading up to a pregnancy test is just the tip of the iceberg. Few women have a solid understanding of what goes on in their bodies, and many feel uncomfortable asking questions that could help them either avoid an unintended pregnancy or increase their chances of having a baby. Whether you’re looking forward to hearing the pitter-patter of little feet or hope to hold off on pregnancy for a while (or forever), all women should know the basic facts about pregnancy, fertility and their cycle.

 

Period Primer

It may not be your favorite part of the month, but your period can tell you more about your body than you might realize. Careful attention to your cycle can tell you when you’re most fertile and can give you some insights into your overall health.

Your menstrual cycle begins on the first day of your period and ends the day before your next period. The average cycle length is 28 days, but it’s normal to have a cycle that lasts anywhere from 21 to 35 days.

During your cycle, your body releases hormones that give directions to your ovaries, where eggs are stored. The hormones cause an egg to be released from one of your two ovaries (your ovaries take turns releasing an egg each month). The egg travels down the fallopian tubes, and is made available for fertilization in a process called "ovulation."

If you’re trying to conceive, ovulation is the part of your cycle that deserves a lot of attention. Ovulation—which happens about halfway through your cycle—is the time when you are most fertile. If you pay attention to your body, you may be able to tell when you are ovulating: Women often experience pain on one side of the abdomen, breast tenderness and a boost in sex drive during ovulation. Ovulating also changes the consistency of vaginal secretions, which will become thinner, stretchier, and more slippery—much like the consistency of egg whites—during ovulation.

Meanwhile, your uterus will develop a nutrient-rich lining, meant to nurture a fertilized egg. If you do not get pregnant, your uterus will shed that lining, which is your period. Periods last an average of four days long, but a period lasting anywhere from two to seven days is also normal.

Keep in mind that your period can be disrupted for many reasons; your cycle is orchestrated by a complex set of processes within your body, and activities that affect the balance of hormones can affect your period. Many women find that hormonal birth control (like birth control pills) makes their periods lighter and more regular, and you may find that you have an irregular cycle for a few months after going off birth control. Stress, extreme weight gain or loss, and a particularly heavy exercise schedule may cause you to miss a period.

 

Pregnancy: The Birds and the Bees

If you fell asleep in Sex Ed, here’s the lowdown: For you to become pregnant, sperm needs to reach the egg. Usually, pregnancy happens as a result of vaginal intercourse — a man orgasms and ejaculates inside a woman’s vagina. However, it’s possible to get pregnant through certain kinds of sex play, as anything that introduces semen into the vagina could potentially lead to pregnancy. Fingering or sex toys could cause pregnancy if objects entering the vagina have semen on them; however, oral sex or anything “above the belt” will not cause pregnancy.

Timing is also important when it comes to pregnancy, as your window of fertility is fairly narrow. The egg is only available for fertilization when you are ovulating, so for you to get pregnant, the egg must be fertilized 12 to 24 hours after it has been released from your ovaries. But that doesn’t mean there’s only one day out of the month that you can get pregnant: Sperm can live for up to five days in the body. In other words, unprotected sex up to five days before ovulation can result in pregnancy. Because it can be hard to tell when you're ovulating, having repeated sex around the time of possible ovulation can increase your chances of conceiving, if you’re trying to get pregnant.

 

Signs You Might Be Pregnant

You don’t have to wait for a bump to know you’re pregnant; your body starts changing in subtle ways within weeks of conception.

The first clear sign you’re pregnant is a missed or delayed period. Rather than shedding the lining of your uterus, your body uses that lining to nourish the fertilized egg.

Another sign to look for is unexpected spotting or light bleeding about six to 12 days after conception. This is called "implantation bleeding" and happens when the fertilized egg burrows into the uterine wall. Because implantation bleeding can occur around the same time as their expected period, some newly pregnant women confuse this with their actual period. However, this is not a true menstrual cycle as you can’t menstruate while pregnant. Keep in mind that bleeding can happen for many reasons. It might be your actual period, or it could be due to starting or switching your birth control pill, a vaginal infection or rough sex.

There are a number of other physical symptoms that suggest you’re pregnant. Some women get swollen or tender breasts one to two weeks after conception; others become fatigued just a week after conception; nausea (“morning sickness”) often begins two to eight weeks after conception and generally lasts through the first trimester; headaches can be caused by changes in your hormones that occur as a result of pregnancy.

But it’s best not to read too much into any of these symptoms, as all could be caused by many things other than pregnancy—including PMS. The only way to tell for sure is by taking a pregnancy test.

 

Get the Answer: Pregnancy Tests

There are a few different types of pregnancy tests, but they all have one thing in common: They work by checking for a pregnancy hormone called human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG). hCG is made when the fertilized egg implants in the uterus. This happens about six days after conception for most women, but can happen as late as 12 days after the egg is fertilized.

If you want to do a pregnancy test on your own, you can buy a home pregnancy test, which measures the amount of hCG in your urine. Urine tests can’t detect hCG until about two weeks after conception, so doctors recommend you don’t try a home pregnancy test until the first day of your missed period. The later you wait, the more likely the test is to be accurate. If you are pregnant, the level of hCG in your system builds up with each passing day.

If you take the pregnancy test too early (i.e., before the first day of your missed period) or don’t follow the instructions that come with the test, it is possible to get a negative result even if you are pregnant. Most urine tests don’t work until the first day of your missed period or later, and have a set of instructions you need to follow carefully. Some pregnancy tests, such as the Clear Blue First Response, are sensitive enough to detect hCG up to foiur to five days before your period is missed. If you get a negative result, wait a week and perform another test, just to be sure.

If you performed the test correctly and took it at the correct time, a positive test almost certainly means that you’re pregnant—these days, home pregnancy tests are as accurate as the urine tests you get in the doctor’s office. If you see your doctor for a pregnancy test, he or she will likely take a blood sample. Blood tests are the earliest way to tell whether you’re pregnant, and can be performed about six to eight days after you ovulate.

 

iStockphoto/Thomas_EyeDesign
Reviewed by Elaine Brown, MD on January 8, 2014
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