Extreme pregnancy

Keeping on the royal theme, Zara Phillips, who has now been ousted from fourteenth in line to the throne to fifteenth, announced she was three months pregnant recently.
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As an eventing equestrian who won Olympic Silver last year, Zara has a job that requires a bit more effort than my leisurely walk to the office did. Initially she said she was planning to continue participating in horse trials but a week later she announced she was quitting seemingly in response to the controversy her decision had generated.

What was controversial was that she was specifically going against NHS advice which states the following exercises should be avoided during pregnancy:

  • “don’t lie flat on your back, particularly after 16 weeks, because the weight of your bump presses on the main blood vessel bringing blood back to your heart and this can make you feel faint
  • don’t take part in contact sports where there’s a risk of being hit, such as kickboxing, judo or squash
  • don’t take part in horse-riding, downhill skiing, ice hockey, gymnastics or cycling, because there’s a risk of falling
  • don’t go scuba-diving, because the baby has no protection against decompression sickness and gas embolism (gas bubbles in the bloodstream)
  • don’t exercise at heights over 2,500m above sea level until you have acclimatised: this is because you and your baby are at risk of altitude sickness.”

The main risk from horse riding is one of placental abruption where the placenta detaches from the uterine wall either partially or totally. The impact of that, as babycenter explains, is that “The condition can deprive your baby of oxygen and nutrients, and cause severe bleeding that can be dangerous to you both. A placental abruption also increases the risk that your baby will have growth problems (if the abruption is small and goes unnoticed), be born prematurely, or be stillborn. Placental abruption happens in about one in 150 pregnancies. It’s most common in the third trimester but can happen any time after 20 weeks”.

The outcry from the “she’s endangering her baby” contingent was probably worsened because it transpired she had recently fallen from her horse at the Barbury International Horse Trial in Wiltshire and those falls can be quite nasty, as demonstrated by this picture taken in 2007 prior to a significant fall in 2008 when she broke her collarbone.
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Yet Zara is a professional sportswoman – this is what she does and she’ll want to keep her and her horses’ eye in to stay competitive. Her mother rode until she was 34 weeks pregnant and as The Telegraph reports, “Mary King helped secure European team gold for Britain in 1996 – and individual bronze – while five and a half months pregnant with her daughter, Emily”.

In reality the risk is probably extremely low. Firstly that she would fall given she is likely to choose to ride horses that are steadier while she’s pregnant like Mary King did: “Mary took confidence from her mount, King William, one of the safest cross-country horses in the world at that time, and avoided young and unpredictable horses”. Secondly that falling would affect the baby – as you can see from the photo, there are other parts of the body that tend to hit the ground first if you fall off a horse. From the same article (notably from the same pro horsey people source): “Consultant obstetrician Roger Marwood, who helped deliver Zara herself 32 years ago. “In my 30 years of being a consultant, I am not aware of anyone losing a baby from riding. The risk of damaging your pregnancy through a fall is far less than people think,” he says.”

Yet the thing about pregnancy is that it makes you paranoid – you are obsessed with the worst happening due to a sneaky bit of unpasteurised cheese or an awkward fall skating, even though the likelihood of these affecting the baby are in fact low. But the trouble is, if something did happen you would always be asking yourself whether it was something you could have prevented – and that prospect of guilt makes you tend towards a life shielded in a cocoon for nine months.

With a lot of these things I think you can make a personal call – I chose not to go skiing because I was three months’ pregnant, but given I very rarely fall skiing (due to being the slowest, most conservative skier in the world) then I think it unlikely that I would have when pregnant even with the change in gravity. (As an aside, I never had an issue with balance while pregnant – the relatively steady increase in mass was fine to deal with and you could often find me balancing on chairs and other such crazy things. However, immediately post-pregnancy I did find myself tottering a bit – the sudden loss in mass was much harder to adjust to and probably more dangerous given I was now holding a baby rather than having one safely tucked away in my belly).

As her “friend” told the Daily Mail: “It’s business as usual at the yard as far as she is concerned and Zara will continue to ride. She also plans to be back in the saddle as soon as possible after having her baby – she is a professional sportswoman after all”, so she will still be riding just not in public. I, for one, think she knows what she is doing.

Picture credits: Daily Mail

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