Are you wondering, “Am I pregnant?” Are you experiencing early pregnancy signs? Want to know when to take a pregnancy test or when to expect early pregnancy symptoms? This guide will help you navigate some of the questions and expectations you may have about signs of pregnancy. We will be answering questions about how your pregnancy is dated, when the early signs of pregnancy appear, when is the best time to take a home pregnancy test, how to interpret the results, and when to call your medical provider. We will begin by briefly describing the basics of pregnancy dating.
About Pregnancy Dating
It may seem like a mystery how doctors and midwives calculate your “due date,” or determine how far a long you are in your pregnancy. However, understanding this information can guide your expectations during pregnancy and help you plan for the future. If you are trying to get pregnant, it can help you in knowing when to expect pregnancy symptoms, when to take a pregnancy test, and when to contact your doctor or midwife.
Pregnancy is normally dated based on the first day of your last menstrual period (known as the “LMP method” or “Naegele’s rule”). So, on the day your period starts (cycle day 0) you would be at “week 0” of your pregnancy. This may seem confusing since the sperm and egg cannot actually meet until after ovulation, which on average occurs around cycle day 14 (week 2). If pregnant, the day of your missed period would typically coincide with the start of week 4. The important thing to remember is that your “week of pregnancy” is calculated from the first day of your period.
Since your actual day of ovulation can vary significantly, and you may not easily remember the timing of your last period, the LMP method is not the most accurate for estimating a due date. However, it is still commonly used. Your medical provider may perform an ultrasound in the first trimester to confirm or adjust your estimated due date. The first trimester ultrasound is currently considered the most accurate way for clinicians to estimate the age of your growing baby and your due date.
If you are charting your fertility signs, including basal body temperature, you likely have a much better idea of when you ovulated. In this case, you can consider your estimated ovulation day as the start of pregnancy week 2, even if it occurs earlier or later than 2 weeks after your period. We have created several online pregnancy calculators to help you figure out, when you are most fertile, when the best time to conceive is, and your conception date.
For most women, the first sign of pregnancy is a missed period. However, some women experience pregnancy symptoms well before this - as early as 6 days after ovulation (around pregnancy week 3). This coincides with the time of implantation, which typically occurs about 5 to 10 days after ovulation. The term “implantation” refers to the burrowing of the fertilized egg (or ova) into the uterine lining. For the most part, other pregnancy signs can appear in any order, but certain symptoms are more common in the earliest stages of pregnancy. However, it is important to remember that each pregnancy is different and not always accompanied by early these symptoms. Some of the more common early signs include:
- Implantation spotting (light vaginal bleed or spotting)
- Breast tenderness
- Increased cervical fluid
- Cramping, fullness, or pressure in the lower abdomen
- Food cravings and aversions
These pregnancy signs are indeed similar to the symptoms a woman may get before her period (premenstrual symptoms); it may be easy to simply take them as a sign that her period will be starting soon. If you are tracking your fertility signs or are very attuned to your body, you may find that these symptoms seem slightly different from your norm. Likewise, if you don’t normally experience premenstrual symptoms, these signs may let you know that something different is going on. On the other hand, it is also very easy to become overly aware of every twinge, sensation, and odd feeling when you are trying to become pregnant. So, it is just as easy to mistaken other sensations as pregnancy signs.
About 1 in 3 women experience very light spotting or vaginal bleeding during implantation. This bleeding may be pink, red, or brown in color. Implantation spotting is often confused for a very light, early period, or the spotting that leads up to a period. However, implantation spotting lasts no more than 2 days, and occurs right around the time of implantation – so around 5 to 10 days after ovulation/conception. In contrast, a true period would occur around 14 days after ovulation. Implantation spotting may be accompanied by mild cramping, but not always. It is important to note that bleeding between periods may also result from other factors. While most of these reasons are harmless, it is a good idea to talk to your doctor if you often experience bleeding between periods.
Increased Cervical Fluid
An increase in vaginal discharge (cervical fluid) is often the only sign of early pregnancy before a missed period. You may already be aware that your cervical fluid undergoes normal changes throughout your cycle. Typically wet, stretchy, fertile quality fluid decreases abruptly just before or after ovulation, but this can be different from person to person. If pregnant, you may notice wet, creamy, possibly stretchy fluid continue, increase, or reappear after ovulation. The abundance of wet, creamy fluid is very common throughout pregnancy, and may change in quality during the different stages of pregnancy.
One of the most common early pregnancy sign is breast tenderness - often increasing in intensity over time, and sometimes accompanied by nipple tenderness and sensitivity. Breast tenderness is associated with rising levels of the hormone progesterone, which is responsible for maintaining the pregnancy and for the thickening of the uterine wall (preparing a nice, nourishing home for baby). Progesterone also stimulates the release of other hormones responsible for breast development and growth in preparation for breastfeeding. Yes, your body begins preparing for breastfeeding very early on!
Abdominal Cramping, Fullness, or Pressure
Although it may seem alarming, cramping is also a very common symptom of early pregnancy, and is common throughout the first trimester. The sensation is often very similar to menstrual cramps. Cramps may come and go, or only be noticeable in certain positions. Even though cramping is normal and expected in early pregnancy, it is always a good idea to consult your health care provider about cramping at any point during pregnancy, but especially if cramping is severe, accompanied by vaginal bleeding, or occurring at regular intervals. These may be signs of miscarriage or ectopic pregnancy.
Some women report feeling “fullness” or pressure in their uterus that feels completely unique to pregnancy. Often, this pregnancy sign will become more apparent over several days and will be most noticeable around the time her period is late, often accompanied with a slight ache or cramping.
Bloating in the first trimester is primarily caused by an increase in progesterone, which signals the smooth muscles in your digestive tract to relax. This slows digestion and can lead to feelings of bloat, gassiness, constipation, and uncomfortable sensations in your abdomen after a meal. Eating several small meals throughout the meal, rather than heavy ones, may decrease the discomforts associated with slower digestion.
Food Cravings and Aversions
You may find that a sudden aversion to a previously favorite food or drink is the first clue of pregnancy. For example, many women report that a sudden distaste for their morning coffee was their first pregnancy sign. Likewise, pregnancy may sharpen your sense of smell, making certain scents absolutely intolerable and even nauseating. Indeed, food/smell aversions and nausea tend to go hand-in-hand. The opposite of food aversions, food cravings tend to appear a little later in pregnancy, but are also very common early pregnancy signs. Certain foods or food combinations may seem oddly appealing when pregnant, even if you never enjoyed them before. Many believe that food cravings are a way for your body to tell you that you need more of certain nutrients.
Nausea and fatigue are probably the two most well known first trimester symptoms, perhaps because they can be hard to hide. Nonetheless, not all women experience nausea and/or vomiting during pregnancy, and for some it is much worse than others. While a few women may feel slight waves of nausea very early on, most will not experience nausea until about the 4th or 5th week of pregnancy - after the missed period.
Although pregnancy nausea is often called “morning sickness,” it can occur at any time of the day. One of the best ways to combat pregnancy nausea is to eat small meals throughout the day. An empty stomach tends to lead to more nausea, which is why the nausea may seem worse upon first waking up. Nibbling on dry crackers first thing in the morning can sometimes help – maybe even before getting out of bed. Focus on eating whatever you can keep down. A few studies suggest that ginger may reduce pregnancy-associated nausea and vomiting. If vomiting becomes severe enough that it is impossible to keep anything down, it is essential to contact a healthcare provider. Dehydration due to vomiting can be dangerous to both mother and baby, but can be easily treated at a hospital using intravenous fluids (IV fluids). Your healthcare provider may also be able to advise you on medications or supplements that could help. Morning sickness will normally let up around the end of the first trimester – around 11 to 13 weeks. However, for some women nausea may continue well into the second trimester.
Most women experience some degree of fatigue during the first trimester. During your first trimester, your body is undergoing the monumental task of creating the placenta to nourish and sustain your baby. Generating an entire organ takes up a lot of energy! Coping with excess fatigue may be challenging to balance with everyday responsibilities, such as a full-time work schedule or caring for children. The best advice is to listen to your body and ask for help. Try to take short breaks and/or add a nap during the day to conserve your energy. While you may not feel ready to widely share the news of your pregnancy, don’t be afraid to rely on your partner, close friend or family member to help you out.
When to take a pregnancy test?
Perhaps you’ve been carefully analyzing everything you are feeling (or not feeling) and wondering if you have any early signs of pregnancy. The only sure way to answer the question, “Am I pregnant?” is to take a pregnancy test. But, when is the best time to take a pregnancy test? This is the big question.
Although many products on the market boast “early results,” the reality is that no test is very reliable prior to the first day of the missed period. In fact, several studies have demonstrated that many of these home pregnancy tests are not as sensitive as they claim. As difficult as it is to wait, it is best to wait at least until the first day of your missed period before taking a test, and even better to wait until 1 week later.
Pregnancy tests function by detecting a hormone called human chorionic gonadotropin, or HCG. Unless you are taking certain medications or have an unusual health condition, HCG is only present in your body during pregnancy. While HCG levels begin to rise at implantation, it can take several days or weeks before it reaches a level that is detectable by a urine-based pregnancy test. Thus, home pregnancy tests are most reliable after allowing sufficient time for HCG to reach a detectable level. Note that blood tests can detect HCG at much lower levels, and can typically confirm pregnancy sooner.
There is no denying that waiting can be difficult. If you absolutely cannot or do not want to wait before taking a pregnancy test, keep in mind that a negative result does not mean that you are not pregnant. The Count Down to Pregnancy website offers a chart to help you explore what result you can expect based on the number of days past ovulation.
False-negative results (a test that appears negative when you are actually pregnant) are very common, especially early on. By far, the two most common reasons for false negatives are: 1) testing too early, 2) testing incorrectly (not following the test’s instructions).
If you get a negative result on a pregnancy test, do not get discouraged - wait a few days, then retest. If your period is overdue, and you are still getting negative results, keep in mind that there can often be significant variations in cycle length and the timing of ovulation. Unless you are charting your basal body temperature, or have had ovulation confirmed by an ultrasound, there is no way to know if/when you ovulated. Even if you can confirm ovulation, it can sometimes take a little longer for your body to generate enough detectable HCG. If you get a negative result and your period is late, retest again 1 week later. If you continue to get negative results, check with your health care provider. There are many non-pregnancy reasons that can cause a missed period (amenorrhea). Most of these can be easily determined and addressed by your healthcare provider.
A positive result means that you are almost definitely pregnant. Even a faint positive test indicates you are pregnant, as long as the test is read within the indicated time limit. Sometimes evaporation of liquid on the pregnancy test can cause false positives to appear after the indicated time frame. Thus, it is absolutely essential to read and follow the directions for your home pregnancy test. Different tests work differently, and have different time frames during which the results must be read. A “positive” result that appears after the recommendation time frame is not a true positive.
The next step after a positive test is to call your healthcare provider. Many providers will want to confirm your pregnancy with another pregnancy test in their clinic. If you are healthy and considered “low-risk,” your provider may want you to wait until you are 8 to 10 weeks pregnant before coming in for a prenatal appointment. Others may prefer to see you sooner. It is best to contact your clinic and find out what they recommend.
We hope this guide has answered your questions and helped you understand the basics of early symptoms and when to take a home pregnancy test. We wish you the best on your journey ahead!