In a prenatal yoga class, eight pregnant women are seated in a butterfly pose. One looks like a few more forward bends might send her into labour. “Those waters are ready to break, Mama,” whispers the lady to her left. “I’ve actually got a month to go,” she replies, blushing. Ouch. Many pregnant women dodge remarks about belly size on a daily basis.
There’s something about gestating a baby that opens up the floodgates to inane body banter that we would never ordinarily impose on someone else. It’s the only time a stranger or work acquaintance might tell a woman that her hips or bottom have beefed up without worrying they’re being impolite.
“It’s as though being pregnant makes you public property and, suddenly, everyone wants to discuss the size of your stomach and how swollen your ankles are,” says Shelley Nicoletta, who is expecting her second child this month. “Questions like, ‘Wow, how much have you gained?’ are suddenly fair game.” Other quips can include, “Are you sure there aren’t two in there?”—a bit of a stinger for someone not carrying twins (and hardly reassuring to the woman who has to birth that baby).
Celebrities with perfect bumps popping from super-svelte bodies (Kate Middleton, Olivia Wilde, et al.) set the bar unreasonably high. Playful small talk can feel like subtle judgment about weight gain, hitting a raw nerve.
“Women are really sensitive to these kinds of comments,” says Toronto registered midwife Barbara Inthavixay. She’s all too used to pacifying patients after an ignorant remark about belly size from a stranger. “I actually resent how often I have to do it.”
The observations can go the other way, too. “Are you sure you’re eating enough?” is something Eva Albarracin-De Angelis hears often. At seven months, she’s showing a compact little belly, and it’s fellow women (friends, family and strangers alike) who mention it the most. While most are well-intentioned, she can’t help but sense the criticism—and even a little jealousy. “The suggestion that I would be more concerned with weight gain than the health of my baby is hurtful,” she says. “It makes me worry that my baby is too small.” She admits to fibbing about her due date, claiming to be less pregnant than she actually is, just to shut up the peanut gallery.
Patients often look to Inthavixay for reassurance. “Do you think I’m too small?” they ask. She tells them that a petite bump does not mean a smaller baby, and vice versa. Many women with midsections deemed mini give birth to average-sized babies (6.5 to 8.5 pounds). “I’ve been a midwife for 14 years, and never have I been able to tell the size of a baby by looking at a woman’s belly,” she says.
Midwives and doctors do assess growth by measuring fundal height—the length from a woman’s pubic bone to the top of the uterus. The number of weeks pregnant should roughly correspond to the number of centimetres, plus or minus three. (So if you’re 28 weeks, the measurement should be around 25 to 31 cm.) This number is typically more important than the number on the scale.
Genetics, muscle tone and the baby’s position also contribute to belly size. Tall, willowy women who have more height to carry the baby often appear as if they have smaller bumps, adds Inthavixay. Whether it’s your first baby or not matters, too. “First-time moms have muscle tone that has never been stretched before. A woman on her second pregnancy may show earlier and carry larger.” She explains that many of us come to pregnancy with insecurities—about our bodies, becoming a mom or the baby’s health. “Instead of infusing her with doubt, what a woman needs to hear is something to buoy her confidence, like, ‘You’re going to be a great mother.’”