Preggo with Pliny Part 1


TW: this post incorporates discussion of pregnancy loss.

Yep, I’m pregnant. Baby #2 is due in March of this year, all being well. Last time around I was at work, coming in at 7pm and leaving the house at 6am. This time, things are more laid back- I mean, there’s more heavy lifting (how can a toddler weigh so much? Is she made of concrete?), but also a bit more brain left at the end of the day. There’s only so much of my brain that gets used up by multiple readings of “Ready Steady Mo” and howling like a toy wolf (her favourite activities). Another difference is this time I’ve more or less ditched the pregnancy manuals I so zealously read last time around.

The upshot of more time and less manuals is this, a little look at  pregnancy advice from Gaius Plinius Secundus. Unsurprisingly, Pliny’s Natural History is written and designed to inform a largely elite male audience. In a basic and biased synopsis: Chapter 4 is centred on when a child can be expected to be born, policing women’s sexual behaviour by birth date. Chapter 5 focuses on how soon you can start to aspire to that longed for male child by microanalysis of pregnancy symptoms. Chapter 9 reminds you of why it’s not a good idea to have sex with your pregnant wife, Chapter 13 that if a woman doesn’t menstruate, she can’t give you a child, but if you impregnate your wife while she’s breastfeeding, you won’t affect her milk supply- as long as the first baby was yours too. But still, if you’re the actually pregnant person, you might find the following interesting:

First off, don’t catch a cold while you’re trying to conceive. Pliny writes that if you sneeze after having sex then you will automatically expel any potential child from your womb and abort a pregnancy before it starts. If you manage to keep the sneezes in, you can expect a headache and the beginnings of nausea to arrive about 10 days after conception- the first signs that you’ve conceived. Never mind weeing on a stick, that headache you thought was dehydration was the first sign*.

Throughout the first trimester, you might feel sick- I spent many an unhappy late afternoon on the bathroom floor this time around, in contrast to last time where apart from one incident in John Lewis (never knowingly undervomited) I had only light nausea. According to Pliny, that means we can expect another little girl: anything bad in pregnancy and labour points to a female child, and that includes morning sickness. Interestingly, this sexist nonsense survives in numerous old wives tales that were unhelpfully recounted to me in recent weeks*.

Also, I really should have been watching out for movement earlier too. Pliny says that a male child will be felt moving in the womb (presumably because men are, y’know, more vigorous and that) 40 days after conception, while a weak little woman in waiting will be felt 90 days later. I take my hat off to the sensitivity of your abdominal muscles if you can feel fetal movement at approximately 8 weeks gestation. I’ve felt movement quite early this time around, but not until 14 weeks*.

I’m also lucky to have got through the first of the dangerous periods Pliny identifies as most likely points for miscarriage. He pinpoints the 4th month (around 12 weeks pregnant) as one of these flashpoints*. While much of the advice I’ve related to so far is downright dodgy, this strikes me as interesting, for two reasons. Firstly, reporting: at what point would a Roman woman have put her bleeding down as a late period? Having missed at least 2 periods, I suspect most would have recognised they were pregnant and therefore diagnose miscarriage if bleeding set in. Secondly, miscarriages at or around 12 weeks are often those we now identify as a “missed” miscarriage, where the body has not realised the pregnancy has ended, due to an issue with the ovum’s development or the cessation of the foetal heartbeat. This is usually identified (heartbreakingly) at the 12 week scan in the UK medical system, and a decision is made whether to wait for a natural end to the pregnancy or intervene with pessaries or surgery. The NHS advice is that if no bleeding has begun within 14 days of the scan, intervention should take place. This is the period covered by Pliny’s “fourth month,” and with the risk of associated risk of haemorrhage for the mother, it is dangerous indeed.

As someone who has experienced the highly unpleasant and potentially life-threatening situation of an ectopic pregnancy (indeed, the symptoms began while I was helping organise a conference and I completely missed all the danger signs), I wonder how many women died in the first trimester of pregnancy. Ectopic pregnancy, maternal haemorrhage, hyperemesis gravidarium (severe morning sickness resulting in dehydration and starvation- it killed Charlotte Bronte in more recent times): even the early days are a dangerous time.I wonder if when we consider maternal mortality rates in the past we discount the less visible deaths in the first 20 weeks of pregnancy.

It’s Baby Loss Awareness week this week, 9-15th October. A good time to stop and pause and think of those affected.

*Natural History, Book 7, Ch 5

*7, 5

*7, 5




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