Morning sickness shouldn’t be called morning sickness – but rather, all-day-everyday-nightmare sickness. It’s not a minor pregnancy affliction that makes you feel “a bit nauseous in the morning”, like the name suggests. It can be experienced at any time of day and at multiple times, too.
Take it from someone who spent three months living off breadsticks and mashed potato – and who is now fully acquainted with the bathroom floor.
I was so excited when I found out I was pregnant, but within a matter of weeks, this feeling turned to something else entirely. One Saturday morning, when I was six weeks along, I sat down and ate my usual bowl of cereal. The next thing I knew I was staring at it again, at the bottom of a very different bowl.
From that day on, I felt sick pretty much all the time. When we left the house I’d have to take an ‘emergency’ carrier bag with me. When we went on our daily walk and I’d smell someone’s cooking, I’d gag and swiftly bury my nose in my jacket. Nothing remotely healthy stayed in my stomach for more than a couple of minutes – not apricot wheats, not apples, and especially not broccoli.
The only thing I could do was eat small amounts of breadsticks little and often, sip water throughout the day (but not too much, as that would inevitably come back up!) and hope for the best. I never expected it would be like this.
The nausea can have you feeling fine one moment, then ejecting porridge out of your nose and mouth the next. It can leave you weak, emotional and exhausted – often during a time when no one knows about your pregnancy. Morning sickness typically occurs during the first trimester – the trimester women tend to keep their pregnancy a secret. This silence doesn’t help.
During those early weeks, I tried everything to stop feeling sick: travel sickness bands, ginger biscuits, tea. I googled remedies over and over, but couldn’t find a satisfying answer. In the end, eating breadsticks little got me through. I’d have one as soon as I got out of bed, and continue nibbling them throughout the day, teaming it with tiny sips of water.
By lunchtime, I could manage a small bit of sandwich. At dinner, some mashed potato or anything beige. I spent a lot of that time looking pale and feeling weak, often wiping tears from my eyes as I shut the toilet door behind me.
Around the 12-week mark, my vomiting and nausea began to calm down. By 16 weeks it had gone – except for one random morning during a virtual meeting, when I had to swiftly turn off my camera to dash and “shout at the loo”.
Coming out the other side, I couldn’t help but wonder how many women must experience this – and whether there was a particular remedy that helped get them through.
Around 80% of pregnant women end up with so-called morning sickness – often referred to as Nausea and Vomiting in Pregnancy (NVP) – and in up to 3% of cases, this can be severe. Known as hyperemesis gravidarum (HG), it can cause dehydration and malnourishment, with some needing hospital treatment.
“The exact cause of pregnancy sickness isn’t known.”
Why sickness happens is a bit of a grey area. It’s widely agreed it’s probably because of hormonal changes during the start of pregnancy, but Dr Shazia Malik, consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist at The Portland Hospital, part of HCA UK, says “the exact cause isn’t known”. Some factors may mean you’re more likely to experience sickness, such as: if other members of your family have experienced it, if this is your first baby, if you have experienced severe sickness with previous pregnancies, or if you’re having twins or triplets.
Considering it’s so common, I was surprised treatment options are thin on the ground. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, women were given Thalidomide, which led to children being born with birth defects in one of the biggest health scandals in history. Now, a short-term course of an anti-sickness medicine called an antiemetic is used – usually for HG. Those who can’t keep pills down might have it injected, or inserted rectally.
There are suggested remedies for standard pregnancy sickness on the NHS website – rest, eating little and often, drinking plenty of fluids, and consuming dry food before you get out of bed, to name a few. Many women try multiple options to stop vomiting, in the hope one of them will stick.
Gemma Nice, 38, from Steyning, West Sussex, says the NHS advice helped her – eating little and often really got her through. Her nauseousness started at week five in both her pregnancies, and ended by week 12 in the first and week 30 in the second. Rich tea biscuits were a godsend, too, she says. “In my second pregnancy I’d be sick when I’d have healthy smoothies – it was so weird,” she adds. “My daughter must have liked all the sugary things!”
She felt tired, run down and cried every time she was sick. “I hate being sick,” she says. “It’s just a reflex that I cry.”
Eating little and often also helped Catherine Balavage, 36, from London – “even if it was just a bite of a Haribo!” Balavage experienced sickness with both her pregnancies. “The first one was the worst, that was with my son,” she says, adding that the sickness lasted her entire pregnancy. At the worst points, she’d throw up at least 10 times a day.
It was the secrecy, coupled with the sickness, that was hard for Betsan Jane de Renesse. The 38-year-old, based in Cardiff, started feeling sick around seven weeks, and it faded by week 17. It would be worse when she was tired and occasionally reared its head near the end of her pregnancy. “It’s debilitating, both physically and mentally,” she says, “particularly because it was worst – and is normally worse – in the first trimester when I felt like I needed the most help.”
While on the District Tube Line in London, travelling home from work, she’d crouch down, pretending to look for something in her bag, just to rest. “I felt like I needed to tell people, but it’s the trimester you traditionally don’t tell anyone – and even more, sometimes you’re judged for telling people,” she says.
A gentle morning workout helped her through. “I’d go to my usual gym and do my little routine, listen to music and sip lemon water,” she says. “It saved my first trimester and I looked forward to my hour of relatively ‘morning sickness free time.’” She believes the combination of movement and hydration kept the sickness (briefly) at bay.
Most women tend to see an improvement by around 16 to 20 weeks – but for some, the sickness doesn’t stop. Excessive nausea and vomiting is classed as HG, and often needs hospital treatment. It’s diagnosed with the triad of “more than 5% pre-pregnancy weight loss, dehydration and electrolyte imbalance”.
However, while it’s thought to affect around 3% of women, exactly how many pregnant women get HG is not known as many cases may go unreported.
In February 2020, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) published draft guidance recommending treatment options for HG for the first time ever. The use of anti-sickness medicines, acupressure, and intravenous fluids are advised to treat extreme cases of nausea and vomiting in pregnancy.
After experiencing sickness with her first pregnancy, Nneka Opara, 35, from London, booked a doctor’s appointment immediately when she found out she was pregnant with her second child. “I had no intention of just grinning and bearing it,” she says. “At first, I was just told to try ginger and mint and the usual suggestions, which of course didn’t work.
“I ploughed on for another couple of weeks, but got to the point where I was constantly vomiting, and had to stop working because I felt so weak, unwell and utterly miserable all the time.”
When she was sick twice during her 10-week appointment, her midwife was horrified she hadn’t been given any medicine or help and pushed for a GP appointment. “I wasn’t diagnosed with hyperemesis, but I was prescribed anti-sickness medication,” she says. This was the only thing that helped her, and it reduced the vomiting to 2-3 times a day. “A huge improvement,” she adds.
Daily vomiting continued until around 20 weeks. For the rest of her pregnancy, she was able to go a few days without being sick, although she regularly felt nauseous. “I stopped taking the tablets around 21 weeks as the GP suggested I shouldn’t continue with the medication longer than I needed it,” she adds. “I vomited for the last time when I was in labour.”
Anti-nausea pills didn’t work for Natalie Reeves Billing, from Liverpool. The 39-year-old, who has two children, had different experiences with her pregnancies. With her first, she was extremely sick and little would alleviate it. Her appetite disappeared for four months and, when she was able to keep food down, her diet consisted of mainly olives and McDonald’s chicken burgers.
Her sickness ruined a once-in-a-lifetime trip to the Caribbean. “Our holiday was spent with my husband walking the beaches alone and me clinging to the carpet,” she tells me. “I had medics out twice to check on me as I couldn’t keep liquid down and I had to have a scan.” Resting was all that seemed to help.
When she returned to the UK from her holiday, doctors told her she may have had HG, but by that time she was able to keep enough fluids down to no longer be a cause for concern. “I cried sometimes,” she says, of her lowest points. “I felt trapped with no way out in absolute sickly hell.”
With food taken away, she didn’t know what to do to distract herself – so she slept, a lot. When she wasn’t sleeping, she was panicking this was going to be it for the full nine months. But by the second trimester, she started to feel better.
Reeves Billing says none of the suggested NHS tips really helped her. “I think the main thing [that helped] was keeping myself cool and forcing myself to nibble on something throughout the day,” she says. “It just took the edge off.”
She adds: “If men had to go through this, they would’ve had all sorts of medicines in place years ago.”
Alison Jackson-Carter, 37, from Essex, suffered morning sickness with both her pregnancies – it ended up lasting the full nine months. “The first was bad, the second time was horrendous,” she says. “If people ever mentioned ‘have you tried ginger biscuits’ to me, I was liable to scream at them.”
She was diagnosed with HG, but never hospitalised. Her GP administered anti-sickness tablets and injections, which stopped her physically vomiting, but didn’t stop the nauseousness. Her one saving grace was a supportive GP and employer, says Jackson-Carter, who works for Slater & Gordon and also runs her own PR business. “I was so stressed about losing my job and my income. They allowed me to do what was right for me and set me up to work from home – in 2017, this wasn’t so common.”
But the trauma of initially working through it has stuck with her. “I used to vomit at work all the time,” she says. “I had to tell colleagues [I was pregnant] at six weeks as I arrived at a meeting with vomit in my hair.”
Her commute to work – Essex to Chancery Lane – could take hours as she had to keep getting off the train to be sick. “I vomited on commuter trains so many times,” she says. “It was utterly humiliating. I vomited at work, in meeting rooms, in bins. I would take my work phone to the bathroom and reply to emails in there while lying in the toilet. There would be so little movement the lights would go off. I would lie there in the dark crying. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.”
The sickness was so bad, she says, she has decided not to have a third child.
To help other women going through this time, Betsan de Renesse has since founded a website, The Glow Method, to support women during pregnancy and beyond. “I’m surprised there’s not more support [for pregnant women] or acknowledgement of how ill it can make you can feel,” she says. “Women definitely suffer in silence because you’re ‘not supposed’ to tell anyone.”
The UK charity Pregnancy Sickness Support is also available, aiming to improve care, support and treatment for those suffering. They have a 1-2-1 volunteer peer support network, made up of women around the UK who have suffered hyperemesis gravidarum, or pregnancy sickness, themselves.
Sadly, there’s still no single answer on how to stop that relentless feeling of nausea and constant sickness when you’re expecting. My advice? Try everything on the NHS list, take it easy, reach out for support and remember – you are not alone.